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Despite recent study results, I'm sticking with echinacea

A study published earlier this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that echinacea doesn't alleviate the common cold. The research results released a torrent of mainstream press bashing the effectiveness of the herbal supplement.

But after reading the study, my response is: So what? Even the study's main researcher, Bruce Barrett at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, remains on the side of echinacea use. "Adults who have found echinacea to be beneficial should not discontinue use based on the results of this trial, as there are no proven effective treatments and no side effects were seen," Barrett said.

The conclusion of the study was that echinacea did help reduce duration and severity of cold symptoms, albeit by about a half-a-day. While 12 hours does not rise to statistical significance in this otherwise well-designed study, I can think of quite a few situations where 12 hours would rise to clinical significance — that could be one extra day at work, or one more day on the slopes without sniffling and sneezing. I think I’d take that!

It’s also notable that this study used a solid-dosage, tablet delivery system. When we use echinacea in our house, it’s a liquid tincture variety, which some studies show is the preferred form. But that makes it more difficult to administer in a placebo-controlled clinical trial. The study did use Echinacea purpurea root, which is to be applauded — they didn’t blow the type and part of the plant.

I think the recommendation remains, which is to take echinacea at the earliest outset of symptoms. Consumers continue to buy echinacea, regardless of any study, because the purple cone flower has embedded itself nicely in the culture. One final point of interest is that elderberry sales have really blossomed in the past year, so even though it is used to a far lesser amount than echinacea, we have a new entrant to the botanical immunity world. Respect your elderberries.

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