The real truth about echinacea and it’s effect on shortening the duration or decreasing the severity of upper respiratory tract infections – unlike what the media is telling us
Getting a flu shot that was not designed to protect you from the flu virus making the rounds now is not going to offer you much protection. So what can you do?
Well, in keeping with last issue’s focus on proteolytic enzymes, it’s worth noting that as stated in Therapeutic Use of Enzymes by Jennifer Hammer, M.S., CCN, CSCS*D and Stan Bynum, Ph.D, supplemental protease raises the proteolytic potential in the blood, which works as protection against viral infection through a process called lysis (or inactivation) of the viral protein coat. Viruses in their extra-cellular phase do not have any protection against lysis and therefore can be dissolved or inactivated by proteases. Successful inhibition of infection has been demonstrated in many different viruses including six different influenza type A viruses, polio and other enteroviruses, varicella viruses (herpes zoster), vaccinia viruses (hepatitis A), and others.
Which brings me to the focus of this newsletter.
They Should Be Ashamed of Themselves
According to a study reported in the December 3rd issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association and gleefully picked up and broadcast by the news-media, including the Associated Press, echinacea has no effect in shortening the duration or decreasing the severity of upper respiratory tract infections in children.
The authors reported, “There was no difference in duration between upper respiratory tract infections treated with echinacea or placebo. There was also no difference in the overall estimate of severity of upper respiratory tract infection symptoms between the two treatment groups.” The authors also noted that rashes occurred in 7.1 percent of the upper respiratory tract infections treated with echinacea and 2.7 percent of those treated with placebo.
“Given its lack of documented efficacy and an increased risk for the development of rash, our results do not support the use of echinacea for treatment of URIs (upper respiratory tract infections) in children 2 to 11 years old. Further studies using different echinacea formulations, doses, and dosing frequencies are needed to delineate any possible role for this herb in treating colds in young patients.”
That’s pretty damning. So what’s the story?
- First, the study was backed by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). By its name, it certainly sounds like a group devoted to alternative medicine and that would be looking for echinacea to test well. But, appearances can be deceiving. As it turns out, NCCAM is 1 of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health, which is one of eight agencies under the Public Health Service in the Department of Health and Human Services. In other words, they are part of the government medical establishment and no friend of alternative medicine. (Think George Orwell’s 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth spread propaganda, the Ministry of Peace fought the wars, and the Ministry of Love was dedicated to torture. With that in mind you can probably guess the purpose of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.)
- The study was conducted by researchers, led by Dr. James Taylor of the University of Washington’s Child Health Institute. In this case the team actually included some alternative health practitioners, but in many studies that is not the case. I always find it astounding when doctors feel they can work with and study alternative health remedies without a qualified alternative health specialist on hand. It reminds me of the medical doctor I met at one of my lectures who proudly announced how he had become an expert on alternative health the previous weekend when he was told by his hospital administrator that he had to come hear me speak. “I wanted to be prepared so I spent the weekend reading about it on the net. Now I’m pretty much an expert in the field.” I cannot tell you how much admiration I had for his accomplishment. After 36 years in this field, I personally can claim only to having a passing understanding of “alternative health” in its broadest sense and a marginal expertise in only one or two aspects of it. My confident doctor is either a better man than I am — or much more arrogant. The bottom line is that I doubt if the medical community would be thrilled if a group of plumbers decided to study the efficacy of heart bypass surgery … based on their expertise in unclogging pipes.
But friend or foe, it shouldn’t matter if the study is fair. Right?
- “The echinacea used in the study was made by the German company Madaus AG and contained extract mostly from the flower.” Every first year herbalist knows that echinacea’s potency is in the root, not the flower. (Check it out on the internet for yourself.) In fact, potency runs from seed to root to leaf to almost none in the flower. (And we won’t even talk about herb quality. If you want to understand the importance of herb quality, read Chapter 8 of Lessons from the Miracle Doctors). So the question is: “When it’s so obvious that 99% of alternative healers use echinacea root, why would the researchers choose to study the effect of a flower extract?”
- Was it ignorance? Can’t be. To quote from the study’s findings, “Further studies using different echinacea formulations, doses, and dosing frequencies are needed to delineate any possible role for this herb in treating colds in young patients.” In other words, they knew it was an issue, and yet, knowing it was an issue, they published their studies anyway.
- What’s the harm? The harm is that this flawed study was given credence when it passed peer review, was published in JAMA, picked up by the Associated Press, and circulated throughout the media and the internet. The simple fact is that vast numbers of people have heard of this study and now question the value of echinacea. I personally have received dozens of queries already on this issue on my website alone. If an herb could sue for libel, echinacea would be able to sue and win. Unfortunately, it can’t. And the elimination of herbs and alternative therapies by character assassination now appears to be the norm. (Check out Don’t Look at the Pinstripes.)
It’s also worth noting that this is not the only study designed to “validate” alternative therapies that ends up trashing them because they are based on absurd premises. For example, the National Cancer Institute is now launching the largest ever prostate cancer prevention trial — testing the efficacy of vitamin E and selenium in preventing prostate cancer. It will involve more than 32,000 men, take 12 years, and cost millions and millions of dollars — and I can already tell you the result. They have announced that the vitamin E they are testing is dl-alpha-tocopherol — synthetic vitamin E. In fact, vitamin E is a complex of at least 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols. Separating out one part (alpha tocopherol) significantly reduces its effectiveness. Then, using the synthetic form of that component rather than the natural form cuts its effectiveness even more (by an additional 60-80%). Don’t take my word for it. Search on the net under “synthetic Vitamin E” and see for yourself.
Don’t we know the result in advance of using such an inferior form of the vitamin — a form no alternative healer would ever use? Yes, we do. The question once again is, “Why would someone knowingly choose the least effective form of vitamin E to test?”
Perhaps for the same reason synthetic beta carotene (derived from acetylene gas, no kidding) was used in the 1996 study that trashed the effectiveness of beta carotene in preventing lung cancer in smokers. Ockham’s Razor!
Ockham’s Razor and Alternative Therapies
There is a principle of logic named after the medieval philosopher William of Ockham that basically states, “The simplest answer is usually the correct answer.”
So when one asks:
- Why do medical study teams refuse to have real experts in alternative health participate in their studies of alternative health?
- And why do medical studies of alternative health consistently choose the least effective form of a supplement to test?
The simple answer is: They make these choices because they want the alternative therapy to fail.
And with that said.
- Shame on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine for funding such an obviously flawed study
- Shame on the study team for presenting results they knew were questionable, or incomplete at best
- Shame on the study team for choosing the most questionable form of echinacea to test (a form used by far less than 1% of the herbal community) and then using the results of that test to issue a blanket indictment of the other 99.9%. (And for that matter, why would an American study team, go to a German company for their echinacea, when the best echinacea in the world is grown in the United States?)
- Shame on the alternative health members of the echinacea study team for choosing (or agreeing to use) a form of echinacea far outside the norm
- Shame on the members of the medical peer review process for not rejecting the study for its obvious flaws
- Shame on the Journal of the American Medical Association for accepting such a flawed study and publishing it
- Shame on the Associated Press for picking up (once again) a story trashing an alternative therapy without really exploring its truth and then broadcasting it to the world
- Shame on everyone in the media who followed AP’s example in picking up such a flawed story and running with it
- And shame on all the people who bought the story hook, line, and sinker