Recently, I visited an echinacea farm run by one of Europe’s most respected makers of natural products, Bioforce AG. Instead of allowing the plant to dry out first, Bioforce transforms it into a cold remedy within hours of harvesting. Company scientists say drying seems to snuff out the unstable immune boosters in echinacea’s purple flowers, leaves, stems, and rootsa theory endorsed by leading U.S. herb experts who have studied and used the plant for years.
Now I understand why my hot cup of echinacea tea isn’t working. That form, like the drying process, basically defangs echinacea’s active ingredients, according to botanist James A. Duke, PhD, a member of Health magazine’s Advisory Board and author of the Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook. Those pills you can buy in any drugstore are also of little use, because chances are they’re made from dried plants. Plus, a typical pill dosage is hopelessly short on enough immune-boosting power to tame a cold. (I should note that some herbalists claim the pills work well, but most don’t believe that.)
Most herb pros seem to agree that you’ll have good luck with a tincture, or alcohol-based extract, made from fresh herbs. Unfortunately, few supplement companies make tinctures with fresh echinacea. Try calling the manufacturer to ask before you buyand see An Update on Echinacea: Do’s and Don’ts for a list of brands recommended by professional herbalists.
Whatever brand you choose, you’re likely to keep on sniffling if you’re stingy with the bottle. When you don’t take enough, "it’s like sprinkling fairy dust on your cereal," warns Steven Foster, who has studied echinacea and other herbs for a quarter-century. Foster, author of Echinacea: Nature’s Immune Enhancer and co-author of the just-published National Geographic’s Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine, says he takes 1 to 2 teaspoons of a tincture (mixed with a little water) every 2 to 4 hours when he’s coming down with a cold. That’s at least three times the amount used in the NEJM study.