The Benefits of Echinacea for Immune Function, Respiratory Support, Inflammatory Response, & More

Published on June 20, 2023

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Echinacea is one of the best-known and top-selling herbal supplements in the United States. REF#1974

Its claim to fame is for immune support, but it’s also been traditionally used and studied for various other health purposes*.

Unfortunately, there have been mixed messages about if and how Echinacea may benefit immune function.

Some experts recommend it, and others say there isn’t enough definitive evidence to know if it’s worth taking.

This has caused a great deal of confusion among consumers, many of whom have relied on Echinacea for years.

In this article, we’ll lay out the history, traditional uses, and science behind various types of Echinacea, including how it may benefit immune function, why the science is mixed, and how it may support skin health, inflammatory response, and more.

What is Echinacea? A Look At Its History and Traditional Use

Echinacea is a member of the daisy family native to North America.

Several species of Echinacea were used in traditional Native American and eclectic herbal formulas throughout the plains of North America long before Europeans arrived.

Of the nine species of Echinacea known, Echinacea purpurea, also known as “Purple Coneflower” or “EP,” has been the most widely used traditionally and in modern formulas.

Echinacea was traditionally used to support various aspects of health and well-being, including: REF#1975 REF#1976 REF#1977

  • Bacterial balance
  • Immune function
  • Inflammatory response
  • Joint Health
  • Respiratory and sinus function
  • Skin health

Today, Echinacea is a leading ingredient in many herbal supplements for immune and respiratory function.

However, the scientific community does not agree about the effectiveness for this purpose, and clinical trials have yielded conflicting results. 

This implication was unfortunately spread through the media. It caused a great deal of confusion for practitioners and consumers who have found Echinacea to work very well as an immune-supportive agent. 

In the subsequent sections, we’ll discuss how Echinacea may support immune health and address some of the controversy surrounding it.

6 Spectacular Benefits Of Echinacea

Since Echinacea is one of the most studied North American herbs, its chemistry is well documented.

Researchers have discovered several groups of active plant compounds in various species considered important for Echinacea’s activity, including: REF#1978

  • Alkamides
  • Antioxidants
  • Caffeic acid derivatives
  • Essential oils
  • Glycoproteins
  • Phenols
  • Polysaccharides

The presence and levels of these plant compounds typically vary based on the species, the plant parts being used (roots, aerial parts, whole plant), extraction processes, time of harvest, and overall quality of plant and seed.

The inconsistency of specific plant compounds in various Echinacea products has been part of the reason behind the controversy over its efficacy.

Unfortunately, if rigorous randomized clinical trials are to be the gold standard of Echinacea’s effectiveness, then the variability of plant material and qualities used leaves many questions unanswered. 

There is also disagreement as to which constituents from Echinacea are responsible for its suspected usefulness for specific bodily functions and how these act in the body. 

This lack of knowledge prevents effective quality control of Echinacea and limits the ability to conduct successful clinical trials in the greater scientific community. 

Despite the limitations, there are still many things about Echinacea we do know and continue to learn through research.

Let’s explore some of its documented benefits now.

1. Echinacea May Support Innate and Adaptive Immune Function

With so much traditional, anecdotal, and scientific evidence suggesting immune function benefits, it’s hard to believe Echinacea remains controversial.

Yet, the scientific community is still somewhat split on whether Echinacea supports various aspects of immune system.

The confusion stems from some negative outcome studies published several years ago in reputable journals, which implied that Echinacea does not work. 

So, which is it: does Echinacea support the immune system or not?

As you just learned, the chemical composition of Echinacea products can vary greatly based on the quality of the plant/seed, time of harvest, the species, the plant parts used, the extraction methods, and the amount or concentration of Echinacea in the product used and tested. REF#1979

For example, research has shown Echinacea root and Echinacea aerial parts (the plant parts above the ground such as flowers, stems, and leaves) contain different levels of plant compounds, like alkamides and polysaccharides, that may support different aspects of immune function. REF#1980

Many of the studies suggesting Echinacea did not provide a specific immune benefit have been criticized for using underpowered supplements, not using enough, and/or using a plant part that did not contain the phytochemicals necessary to provide targeted immune support.

However, much research has shown multiple species of Echinacea can provide potentially broad-reaching support for innate and adaptive immune function. REF#1981 REF#1982

Innate immune function is what you’re born with. Adaptive immune function is what you develop throughout your lifetime.

Research has also shown various species of Echinacea may support normal immune modulation, a natural process that helps your immune system adapt and perform optimally, and other aspects of immune function. REF#1983 REF#1984 REF#1985 REF#1986

It is worth noting most of the research on Echinacea and immune function has been conducted on Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea purpurea. 

Therefore, it is wise to look for those specific species when choosing an Echinacea supplement for immune function.

So, does Echinacea support immune function?

Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest it does affect immune function there still is conflicting information and, the scientific community is still split on whether it provides specific immune benefits. 

More research is needed using consistent Echinacea extracts from specific plant parts.

2: Echinacea May Support A Normal Inflammatory Response

Echinacea root’s alkamides and antioxidants have been shown effective for supporting a normal inflammatory response. REF#1987

Although more research is needed to determine the mechanism, there is evidence the alkamides may support regulation of the endocannabinoid system, which is involved in the inflammatory process. REF#1988

Antioxidants, such as polysaccharides in Echinacea, also support normal inflammatory processes by scavenging free radicals.

This preliminary evidence provides some basis for Echinacea’s traditional uses that may be related to supporting a health inflammatory response.

3: Echinacea May Promote Respiratory Functions

Some studies have shown a potential benefit of taking Echinacea for respiratory support.REF#1989 REF#1990 REF#1991 REF#1992

Some studies were conducted using a pure Echinacea extract of various species and plant parts, while others used Echinacea in combination with other herbs.

However, as with the evidence on immune function, some studies suggest no benefit.

Although more research is needed to understand how Echinacea may work on the respiratory system, the authors of one study observed the effects of echinacea may be due to beneficial levels of specific immune cells, such as white blood cells and natural killer cells, a normal non-specific immune response, and free radical scavenging properties. REF#1993 REF#1994

Echinacea’s potential effects on inflammatory response may also play a role.

More research is needed to understand how various species and parts of Echinacea may support respiratory health.

4: Echinacea May Support Skin Health

Echinacea has long been used as a topical application for wound healing and other skin concerns.

Some small studies have shown topical preparations of Echinacea may benefit the skin by: REF#1995 REF#1996

  • Reducing oxidative stress
  • Reducing wrinkles
  • Supporting normal inflammatory response
  • Promoting skin barrier function

5. Echinacea May Promote Feelings of Calm

Many people swear by the calming effects of a cup of Echinacea tea.

As it turns out, preliminary research has shown Echinacea may help reduce occasional stress and occasional anxiety and promote feelings of calm but there is significant need of more research before recommending. REF#1997 REF#1998 REF#1999

Of course, a warm cup of any tea can have a soothing effect on the soul and has also been shown to promote calm. REF#2000

Researchers believe it works via the endocannabinoid system, which is also involved in various aspects of stress response and emotional well-being.

This may also explain another way Echinacea may support immune function, which can be compromised due to stress.

Potential Side Effects & Contraindications of Echinacea

Echinacea has been used for centuries and is generally considered safe.

The most common side effects reported are minor digestive problems and skin rashes. REF#2001

Although the optimal duration of use for Echinacea is debated in the herbal field, studies have shown it is likely safe for short- or long-term use. REF#2002

Although rare, allergic reactions—including severe allergies—to Echinacea have been reported. REF#2003

If you have any immune concerns, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding, always check with your doctor or healthcare practitioner before using Echinacea.

Want More Information on Echinacea?

At Gaia Herbs, we’ve spent decades growing organic Echinacea, formulating Echinacea products, learning about Echinacea’s rich history and traditional uses, and keeping up with the latest studies.

To learn more about the specific Echinacea species we grow and use and how to grow your own Echinacea at home, check out:


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