The Lesson of Echinacea

Update: This post has been updated on 8/8/12 with new informations Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower, snakeroot and several other names, is a popular herb best known for treating colds and the flu. It has been used for centuries by Native American healers and several scientific studies have shown it be helpful in fighting viruses. It is an immune booster, and may help fight off a wide variety of infections. As an immune booster, it has long been tempting to think that echinacea may benefit people with HIV and AIDS.

Echinacae is not good for HIV/AIDSHowever there has been concern that the way echinacea boosts the immune system might also increase HIV replication. This has been a subject of debate among herbalists and naturopaths. Some herbalists believe that it may be safe to take echinacea for people who are taking antivirals. Antivirals prevent HIV from replicating, which may allow echinacea to boost the immune system without helping the virus. It is also possible that echinacea would have the opposite effect, interfering with the antiviral medication and increasing the viral load in spite if HAART. This is an especially dangerous possibility because it would increase the chance of the infection developing a resistance to the medications.

New information is starting to finally bring some answers to this debate. And fears that echinecea might interfere with HAART are being laid to rest. Recent studies have found that echinacea is safe to take with ARVs Etravirine and darunavir-ritonavir. Echinacea had not interactions with these ARVs and did not negatively affect the health of the study participants. Hopefully future studies will find similar positive results for combining echinacea with other ARVs.

Because of how popular it is, and its effectiveness against colds and flu, echinacea is found in many herbal remedies, and almost every herbal medicine for coughs, colds and flu has echinacea as a main ingredient. People with HIV/AIDS should be very careful with herbal remedies and teas. Teas especially can be surprising, with a name that suggests they only use one herb when in fact they use 3 or 4. If you are taking ARVs that have not been tested with echinacea, be careful and read the ingredients list.

It is important to note the lesson of echinacea for other herbal remedies and alternative medicines. Science is slow. Research takes time. It is easy to become impatient and seek alternative treatments that look like the will help, but have not yet been tested for safety or bad side effects. We still do not know if echinacea is safe to take with the vast majority of ARVs. We don’t know if it will help fight HIV on it’s own or not. And finding the answers takes time many people with HIV may not have.

Please be careful trying alternative medicines. Look for studies that back up claims and be aware of the risks that you take. Measure the risk of an herb that may help against the risk that same herb will harm or interfere with your treatment. Herbs and alternative medicine may very well hold the key to stopping HIV – the vast majority of modern medicines started as herbs, after all. But try to be patient while science runs it’s slow course, and take only those herbs that you know will help, not make things worse.

2 Comments to “The Lesson of Echinacea”

  1. Cory says:

    Is this post from a doctor/healthcare practitioner? I have seen so many conflicting ideas about Echinacea without any real evidence to whether this will or will not harm a person suffering from HIV. Could someone do some real clinical research and stop guessing if this herb will heal or harm? Thank you.

    • Jessica says:

      Hi Cory,
      I am not a doctor, I have worked in alternative healthcare, though I closed my practice a few years ago when my family moved. Up until recently, there was no factual information on how echinacea would affect a person with HIV, because clinical studies take a while, and so all the advice anyone could give was theoretical. Since theories can always be argued both ways until the evidence is in, there was (and will be) a lot of conflicting claims.

      Recently several studies have found that echinacea is safe to take with at least some anti-viral medications (unfortunately all anti-virals need to be tested separately with every herb which makes it a long process.)

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22869560
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21078942

      I’ll be updating this article with the new information, and will continue updating as we learn more.

      Thanks,
      Jessica

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