As cold and flu season is among us, many of us stock up on our favorite immune boosting herb, Echinacea. However, many people don’t realize that boosting the immune system too much may cause trouble, especially for anyone with an already diagnosed autoimmune disease.
How does Echinacea work?
The active constituents of Echinacea stimulate the immune response by interacting with various cells of the immune system. Macrophages, natural killer cells, and neutrophils have all been shown to be activated with the use of Echinacea.
So what’s the problem?
Autoimmune diseases are diseases where the immune system is overstimulated and begins attacking itself. For many autoimmune diseases, medications are used to suppress the immune cells that Echinacea has been shown to stimulate. Yikes!
A 55-year-old male who was diagnosed as having pemphigus vulgaris, an autoimmune disorder that involves blistering and erosion of the skin and mucous membranes. His disease was gradually controlled with an anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant medication. The patient achieved complete clearance of lesions and continued to be clear of lesions 1 year after the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant medications were discontinued.
1.5 years into his remission, he developed an upper respiratory tract infection and began taking an Echinacea supplement daily. He had never before taken an herbal supplement. He developed blisters on his trunk, head, and oral mucosa within 1 week of starting the supplement. He had not had oral mucosal lesions since onset of the disease. After discontinuing the use of the Echinacea supplement, partial disease control, but never complete remission, was achieved with the use of the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant medications again.
What else can I do when I am sick?
Clinically, I am very cautious with using herbal supplements with already diagnosed autoimmune patients or those patients that have a strong family history of autoimmune diseases. There are many lifestyle things to do instead like, watching your diet and avoiding certain inflammatory foods at the first sign of illness. As well as, using vitamins and minerals, like vitamin D, C, and zinc to help the immune system during its battle against cold and flu invaders.
Just because its “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe! Supplements are sold over the counter with no regulations. This makes them appear to all be safe and to take regardless of your health conditions and the medications you are taking. Seeking out a Naturopathic Doctor who has been medically trained with the expert knowledge in the use of herbs and vitamin supplements for diseases and interactions with medications you are currently taking is recommended.