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Originally published Monday, September 24, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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The cold facts about echinacea

Dr. Dan Labriola shares the myths and the facts about echinacea and cold and flu season.

Dan Labriola Special to The Seattle Times

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In just a blink of a watery eye it will be cold and flu season, and with all of those aches and sneezes out come the home remedies ranging from saunas to brandy-laced concoctions.

Not the least of these is the herb echinacea, also known as the purple coneflower.

Echinacea has been part of naturopathic medicine for generations. Used correctly, it may well provide some relief. But if echinacea is used incorrectly, you may be in for a hard winter.

Echinacea works by stimulating your immune system to produce an increased number of virus-attacking white blood cells.

The premise is that these cells will kill off enough of the cold or flu virus to limit the duration and intensity of symptoms. In traditional naturopathic medicine (following centuries of common use), echinacea is taken at the first indication of symptoms and continued until symptoms are gone with a few days added on to catch any lingering viral bad boys.

While the clinical trial results are not always consistent, some support this approach and many patients swear by it.

More, however, is not better. Somewhere along the line, someone got the notion that using echinacea all of the time should prevent symptoms from ever starting.

But that turned out to be a big mistake. While occasional, targeted use of echinacea creates more white blood cells to presumably kill off cold and flu bugs, using the herb constantly results in more colds and flu.

Think of it like exercise. A nice short run will help you feel invigorated, strong and ready to do battle with the world. If you run until you are exhausted, however, you will be tired and less effective.

The same thing happens with your immune system. When asked to produce increased numbers of white blood cells for too long, the immune system weakens and eventually does less.

If you are thinking about using echinacea, first ask your doctor if it is safe for you. The herb can theoretically worsen some diseases including leukemia. A provider experienced with herbal medicine can develop a prevention or treatment plan specifically for you. And only use it when you need it, not all winter.

There is some debate over which variety of echinacea is most effective. Echinacea angustifolia is the most researched, but pallidum and purpurea varieties have been used traditionally with some reported success.

Take note that there is some theoretical concern for using echinacea and similar herbs with children whose immune systems are still developing. We do not use echinacea with children or pregnant women in our clinical practice.

And don't forget the other factors that are clearly important for optimum immune system function: adequate sleep; regular moderate exercise; less stress; a sound, balanced diet; and good hygiene.

Dan Labriola, N.D.: nwnaturalhealth.com">DrLabriola@nwnaturalhealth.com. Labriola is director of the Northwest Natural Health Specialty Care Clinic and medical director for naturopathic services, Swedish Medical Center's Cancer Institute; the clinic website is nwnaturalhealth.com.

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