The upcoming topic on the Natural Health Show is the common cold and Echinacea (Jamieson Laboratories). This is not surprising since we have entered the flu season. Of course many of you may say that it’s sufficient to get a flu shot. But as I explained in my previous blog on the topic it’s not as simple as that. Each year the influenza virus undergoes mutations which make some strains invulnerable to the vaccine. Some individuals are also allergic to the vaccine. Furthermore there is a period of increased vulnerability to infection from the time of taking the vaccine to the time of antibody production. This period usually lasts about a week and during this time we have a higher chance of getting sick if we are exposed to the real virus.
So what are the natural ways that we can enhance the immune system and prevent the cold? Well a lot of natural remedies were mentioned in my previous blog, but here I want to talk specifically about Echinacea. It is a nice purple flower with a longer then average stalk commonly growing in our gardens during the summer period. The three main sub-species are E. purpurea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida. The most common sub-species in a supplement form is the E.purpurea. All three produce none or only very minor side effects in a very small proportion of the population. The most common one being upset stomach.
The body of scientific evidence in favour of Echinacea for the treatment and prevention of the flu is quite convincing. The plant contains compounds called Cichoic acid and to a lesser degree Echinacoside. The first one has been shown to stimulate phagocytosis (“eating of bacteria and viruses by immune cells called macrophages”). They also inhibit the breakdown of hyaluronic acid and collagen (both are the primary components of joints and skin, giving skin its elasticity and resistance to wrinkle formation). It also inhibits the function of HIV-1 integrase, a protein the HIV/AIDS virus uses to “get into” and thus infect cells. On the other hand Echinacoside has antibiotic activity against Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococci. Both are very common bacteria responsible for the majority of bacterial infections in humans.
But perhaps the most interesting quality of Echinacea is that it contains compounds called Alkylamides that bind to the CB2 receptors. These are the Cannabinoid type 2 receptors that I mentioned in my blog on Medicinal Marihuana. The CB2 receptors are not the ones responsible for the psychotropic effects of cannabis (i.e. the “high”). Rather they are located on the immune cells of our body and play a very important role in modulating (i.e. regulating) the immune system. The affinity of alkylamides for the CB2 receptors is about 70% that of THC (the main psychotropic active compound in Cannabis). Overall, to describe the functionality of the CB2 receptors is a book in itself but to simplify matters it has both a stimulatory and inhibitory influence on the immune system. It inhibits the immune system by inhibiting inflammation. Thus, just like THC and Cannabidiol in cannabis, the alkylamides in Echinacea may potentially be beneficial for ailments where excessive inflammation is the cause (see the blog on Medical Marihuana).
CB2 receptors are also very numerous on the immune cells near our gastro-intestinal tract. There they are thought to inhibit the immune cells from being overly stimulated by the natural “good” biological flora (i.e. probiotics) of our bowel. Without such inhibition the immune cells cause excessive inflammation which may lead to such conditions as Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis (together termed Inflammatory Bowel Disease). Therefore just like Medical Marihuana has been shown beneficial in the treatment and prevention of Ulcerative Colitis the same may be true for Echinacea. For those of you who do not want to experience the psychotropic effect of Marihuana, Echinacea may be a viable alternative for this specific condition.
The third and final point is that the binding of cannabinoids (either naturally occurring in our bodies or from Medical Cannabis) or the binding of Alkylamides (from Echinacea) to the CB2 receptors also stimulates immune cells called B cells. These cells when stimulated produce a larger number of antibodies. These are proteins that are distributed to every part of our body where they bind to bacteria, viruses, parasites and cancer cells. This binding marks these pathogens for phagocytosis (like mentioned before this means being eaten up and broken down by macrophages). Thus these two groups of compounds inhibit some components of the immune system where it may be overactive (and causing some diseases) and stimulate other parts of the immune system where such stimulation inhibits infections and potentially cancers.
It’s like taking a natural medicine with practically no side effects which has two opposite roles in different parts of the body, and where both are beneficial to our health. Please show me one synthetic pharmaceutical that can do that. Try Echinacea during this flu season, and not just when you catch the cold to shorten the duration of symptoms but also prophylactically to prevent the cold and other infections and possibly even cancers.