Echinacea supplements for colds

How to avoid catching a cold: does echinacea really ‘boost’ the immune system and protect against illness?

Posted by for Wellbeing

We all know someone who swears by echinacea for warding off colds and flu, but how much science is there to back up that claim?

“My housemate swears by echinacea,” a colleague told me recently when we were discussing why some people never seem to contract Covid. Her housemate, devoted to taking the herb on a daily basis, never catches colds, rarely feels ill and is probably one of about five people in the capital yet to see those two damning lines crop up on a lateral flow test.

Of course, echinacea doesn’t prevent or cure Covid – research is ongoing as to why some people never seem to catch it, despite being in contact with positive cases. But for decades, echinacea has been touted as an immunity booster. I’ve taken it myself, back when I used to seemingly have a new cold every fortnight, in a bid to strengthen my system. 

With many of us more conscious than ever of our health and capacity to fall ill (anyone else feel like their immunity is at an all-time low?), we wanted to find out just how much truth there is to all the herby hype, and whether it’s worth starting supplementation.

Echinacea refers to a group of pink flowering plants that comes from the same family as the common daisy. You might also know it as a ‘coneflower’ because – you guessed it – the central part of the flower forms a cone-like shape. It’s popular around the world because of its alkylamide content, the active ingredient that’s perceived to give echinacea its health benefits. People tend to take it as a tincture, but you can buy capsules too.

Lily Chapman, nutritionist at P3RFORM, explains that it’s a natural herb that has been used throughout history as a kind of plant-based antibiotic. “It contains active substances that are thought to boost the immune system, relieve pain, reduce inflammation and have antioxidant effects,” she tells Stylist. Evidence of those benefits, however, is mainly anecdotal.  

The active ingredient in echinacea flowers is found in the orange centre.
The active ingredient in echinacea flowers is found in the orange centre.

A 2014 review looked at the results of previous echinacea trials and found that echinacea products may slightly reduce the risk of getting a cold. However, the herb’s effects in those who went on to catch a cold were pretty weak when compared to a placebo.

Chapman points to a more recent review, however, which suggests significantly reduced symptom severity in response to echinacea – suggesting that more research is needed to confirm its powers either way. “Until then, choosing whether to try it as a remedy should be down to personal choice, although more scientifically backed food choices may be preferred,” she says.

Roxane Bakker, head dietitian at Vitl agrees that “there is certainly some evidence to suggest that echinacea can be effective in preventing infections and to accelerate the rate of recovery of the common cold. However overall it doesn’t look very potent.”

Instead, she believes that ‘consistent healthy habits’ such as regularly napping, taking short walks to breathe fresh air and eating a variety of fruit and veg are more reliable factors for staying fit and well. Bakker says that a lot of people probably implement healthy habits when they want to protect themselves against illness – accidentally habit-stacking various activities. “For example, taking echinacea everyday as well as drinking kefir and regularly sleeping seven-plus hours will all contribute to a healthy immune system – but only doing one of these things may not be enough.”

Bakker also flags that we shouldn’t underestimate the potent potential of the ‘placebo effect’ when it comes to preventing sickness. “The mind is a powerful tool,” she says.

Chapman suggests that there are far more effective ways to support our immune systems than putting our faith in echinacea. While only a few nutrients have been shown to have consistent positive effects in ‘fighting off’ infection and maintaining high levels of immunity, Chapman stresses that “supplementation of vitamins and minerals cannot outweigh a poor diet”.

Bakker, on the other hand, is keen to stress that being exposed to a virus or bacteria that causes an infection isn’t something that we can always control – especially during flu season (and Covid). “However, it is up to us to make sure our body and immune system are at the top of their game when, and if, we get infected. Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of a healthy functioning immune system; an inadequate intake of energy, protein, essential micronutrients and fatty acids may put us at greater risk of getting infected or needing a longer time to fully recover.”

Echinacea, in her opinion, should be considered as an ‘add on’ to your already healthy balanced diet, rather than as the first-line solution to infection.

Needless to say, there’s no evidence (yet) to suggest that echinacea can prevent or reduce the symptoms of Covid, says Bakker, although a few studies suggest that the herb may have some impact on cytokine levels – a type of protein potentially associated with mortality in Covid patients.

Six proven nutrients for staving off colds and flu

Lily Chapman shares her hero nutrients for supporting a strong immune system:

  1. Energy: “Our body needs enough energy to help many physiological processes function properly, including our immune system,” she says. “Ensuring you are consuming enough calories to help support your immune system is therefore vital.”
  2. Fruit and veg: experts suggest that we should be eating 30 different plants a week, and that becomes even more important if we’re trying to improve our immune systems. Try to eat folate-rich veg such as broccoli, kale and spinach (shown to produce an inflammatory immune response) and vitamin C-heavy fruits such as oranges and strawberries (which acts as an antioxidant to protect cells from damage).
  3. Fat: for immunity, you want to be consuming at least 25% of your energy from fat, says Chapman. This should come from both saturated and unsaturated sources.
  4. Omega-3: your body can’t create these unsaturated fatty acids itself, so you need to include them in your diet, in foods such as oily fish. Chapman explains: “Omega-3 plays a vital role in immunity, through activating immune cells and working as signalling molecules.”
  5. Zinc: a deficiency in zinc has been shown to be associated with an increased susceptibility to infections. You can find it in lean meats, pulses, seafood, nuts, seeds and soy products.
  6. Vitamin D: we’ve heard lots over Covid about the immunity-boosting nature of vitamin D. Try to get a little sun exposure first thing in the morning, and then aim to get the rest via diet (eggs, full-fat dairy and oily fish are packed with it, as are mushrooms) or a supplement.

For more nutrition tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.