Understanding Herbs: When Echinacea Fails

Echinacea has become widely known and an accepted herbal remedy around the world over the years. It is widely available in various forms in most drugstores, grocery stores, and on the internet, and is touted as the natural remedy for colds, flus, and anything else that a doctor might prescribe antibiotics for. Tinctures are usually more available in glycerin (non-alcoholic form) to encourage the use on children, and dried-herb capsules and teas are all over.

I feel that all of this feeds the commercial beast and perpetuates the transfer of responsibility for our own health to someone else, somewhere else. So how does echinacea actually work?

First of all, echinacea is not an antibiotic.

Antibiotic (an·ti·bi·ot·ic) noun:
a medicine (such as penicillin or its derivatives) that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms.

The majority of herbs don’t kill or destroy anything. Yes, there are some that are highly poisonous and could kill a grown man in the right amount, but for the most part, herbal medicine is safe, and echinacea is an example of safe herbal medicine.

What echinacea actually does is boost the immune system by helping the body to increase the production of white blood cells. White blood cells are the warriors inside us. They protect us, and they are the ones that do the destroying of things that shouldn’t be there. A standard blood test usually includes a white blood cell count, or wbc, which is used as an indicator to the doctor that there is some sort of infection going on in your body when it’s elevated, or a sign of a weak immune system when it’s low.

When an infection is sensed in the body, the white blood cells (your own personal little army) go on high alert and start gearing up for battle. This is when the annoying or uncomfortable stuff starts happening in our bodies like runny noses, swollen lymph nodes, coughing, fever, etc. Each symptom has it’s function.


  • Increased mucus production (runny nose, etc.): creates a barrier between the bacteria and you, traps bacteria, and flushes it out of the body
  • Coughing/sneezing: propels trapped bacteria out of the body
  • Swelling: increased blood flow to the area causes swelling, but also carries your armies (the white blood cells) to the area so they can do their work
  • Fever: most bacteria do not like warm weather! Increased body temperatures weaken on kill them.

The symptoms of illness most often indicate a healthy immune system: the body is doing exactly what it was designed to do. And echinacea simply supports and encourages the body to do those things…like a cheerleader for your white blood cell army, if you will.

Three weeks ago, I got strep throat (bacterial infection). I’ve had it before, so I knew the early signs, and immediately began taking high doses of my echinacea tincture every couple hours. I was pretty miserable for a few days dealing with the symptoms, but the bulk of the infection came and went fairly quickly.

Last weekend, my sweetheart felt he may have strep throat. He is a super strong believer in letting the body do it’s thing, without any intervention, not even “natural” aids, and normally that method works for him as he is a pretty healthy guy. In this instance, it did not. The infection took hold. His body started ramping up it’s defenses with lots of throat, tonsil, and lymph swelling. This is when he turned to echinacea and things got worse!

See, his white blood cell army was already on full alert, already fortified, already mounting the attack. By taking our normal high-and-frequent doses, he was encouraging his body to ramp up the battle even more. The fallout was even more swelling, in his throat, tongue, tonsils…to the point that he couldn’t swallow and could barely breathe.

Anaphylaxis is an overactive immune response, usually to an allergen. Anaphylaxis symptoms include:

  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • lightheadedness
  • low blood pressure
  • difficulty breathing
  • rapid breathing
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • poor circulation (blueing of the skin)
  • hives
  • rashes
  • swelling
  • nausea or vomiting
  • difficulty swallowing
  • facial swelling
  • increased heart rate
  • feeling of impending doom or increased anxiety
  • impaired voice
  • itching
  • mental confusion
  • congestion
  • swelling in the mouth, throat, or tongue

In my sweetheart’s case, his immune system was already in full fight mode, and the extra boost that the echinacea gave him was more than his body needed and put him into anaphylaxis.

He ended up going to the doctor and taking some high-dose antibiotics and high-doses of ibuprofen to fight the swelling and pain. The antibiotics took a little longer to kick in than normal. My guess is under normal circumstances, the antibiotics come in and do the killing so our wbc army doesn’t have to get so ramped up. His was already there and then some, so it took a bit longer for them to be satisfied that they were winning the battle and send some of the troops home.

He is doing much better now, and we are working to counter the damage the antibiotics have inevitably done to his normal microbiome.


The moral of the story here is two fold:

  1. Simply replacing prescribed/synthetic medicine for herbal/natural medicine is not the answer. We, as a society, have grown accustomed to following doctor’s orders, simply because we think they are the experts, and transferring that blind faith to others: companies, blogs, internet searches, etc. In all cases, our health is ultimately on us. Take responsibility to understand what you put in your body, how it works, and know your body and situation well enough to understand what the result will be.
  2. And echinacea is not an antibiotic, or a direct replacement for antibiotics. Antibiotics have their place in medicine. Yes, I believe they are waaaaay overused and overprescribed, but they have saved countless lives and are valuable in certain situations. Echinacea does as well. But again, understanding what you actually are putting in your body, and what it will and won’t do is a huge key to wellness.

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