Echinacea has a long history of treating medical conditions. It is a very popular and well-researched herb. Echinacea was used by North American Indians and, in the early 1900s, was the primary herbal treatment for infection. Despite the potential risk echinacea poses for those with MS, some popular books on alternative medicine specifically recommend echinacea for people with MS.
Echinacea may prevent or lessen the severity of viral infections. In some instances, viral infections lead to MS attacks and therefore prevention of these infections may produce benefits for people with MS. The work concerning echinacea and viral infections has produced mixed results, but some of this work does suggest echinacea may decrease their length and severity.
Echinacea may stimulate the immune system. Specifically it may stimulate T cells and macrophages, cells that are already overactive in MS. This stimulation may act in opposition to many of the conventional medications for MS, which work to depress immune system activity. It is also possible that echinacea could worsen MS.
Conventional methods, such as hand washing, flu vaccines, and newer prescription drugs, may be a safer and more effective way for people with MS to prevent and treat viral infections.
Echinacea may cause liver damage. This effect may be amplified by some conventional MS medications, known to be associated with liver injury. With the limited information available at this time, the safest course of action for people with MS is to avoid echinacea.
References and Additional Reading
Bowling AC. Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2007.
Bowling AC, Stewart TS. Dietary Supplements and Multiple Sclerosis: A Health Professional’s Guide. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2004.
Jellin JM, Batz F, Hitchens K, et al. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Stockton, CA: Therapeutic Research Faculty, 2009.
Ulbricht CE, Basch EM, eds. Natural Standard Herb and Supplement Reference: Evidence-Based Clinical Reviews. St. Louis: Elsevier-Mosby, 2005.