- Friend or Foe
by Barbara D. Allan
Author of Conquering Arthritis
In last week’s newsletter, I addressed the question:
“It is my understanding that echinacea strengthens
the immune system. Is this a good idea for an already
overactive immune system of a person (me) who has
My answer was:
“A strong immune system is one that is in balance.
In the case of RA, one part is overactive (a certain
subset of helper T-cells) and another part is under
active (a certain subset of suppressor T-cells). This
imbalance leads to runaway inflammation.
With Echinacea, or any herb or supplement that affects
the immune system, the question is whether this overall
balance is improved. Because herbs generally have
a holistic effect, this is a likely outcome. However,
in keeping with my general approach, the best way
to answer a question like this is to learn what you
can about the specific effect of an herb or supplement,
and then pay close attention to the specific effects
of this substance on your own body.”
This update was prompted by reader responses. One reader
let me know that for her, taking Echinacea was correlated
to a worsening of specific arthritis symptoms. Another
reader wrote expressing her strong opinion that Echinacea
is dangerous for RA patients.
In response, I have done more research on what is known
about Echinacea and how it affects autoimmune disorders
such as rheumatoid arthritis.
What is most striking is how little research has been
done on the issue. The University of Maryland Medical
Center cautions that folks with autoimmune conditions
should not use Echinacea, but they provide no references
or other information explaining this caution. A search
of Medline reveals no papers specifically focused on
the effect of Echinacea on autoimmune types of arthritis.
The only research paper I could find on Medline that
addresses the larger issue of Echinacea and autoimmune
disorders in humans was published in June of 2004 in
a dermatology journal. This article describes two patients
with an autoimmune skin disorder (pemphigus vulgaris)
who had a flare up in their condition that correlated
to taking both Echinacea and Spirulina, at the same
time. A third patient had both the onset and a flare
up associated with taking Spirulina and another product.
The Spirulina is the common agent implicated.
It isn’t clear whether the Echinacea had any
role at all in the onset or worsening of these skin
Another paper published in September 2005 in the journal
“Autoimmunity” looked at the effects of
Echinacea on type I diabetes (an autoimmune disorder).
This study was done in mice and indicated that Echinacea
brought about a favorable immune response and may actually
be an effective treatment for type I diabetes. Whether
this effect will also be present in humans is an open
Because Echinacea extracts have known effects on the
immune system, there is some concern about the effect
of taking Echinacea when an autoimmune disorder is present.
However, to date, no research has yet been published
in medical journals on the effects of Echinacea on autoimmune
types of arthritis. What little has been published on
the effects of Echinacea on other types of autoimmune
disorders is of little use in determining safety for
people with arthritis.
Which brings us back to my general advice about any
treatment you might be considering. Learn what you can
about the specific effects of a treatment. If you decide
to try it, pay close attention to the specific effects
of this substance on your own body. Ultimately, what
matters is whether it helps or harms YOU.
If you have used Echinacea yourself, please write me
whether it had any negative (or positive) effect on
your arthritis. I’m really curious. If very many
of you have had negative effects, I need to stop mentioning
Echinacea as a treatment for colds and sniffles and
warn folks of the possible dangers.
[Author’s note: To date reader responses are
running 2/3 reporting good results using Echinacea,
1/3 negative. Responses have been primarily from readers
with rheumatoid arthritis. To share your experience
write me at ]