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Echinacea: Harmful for Hashimoto’s, Beneficial For Graves’ Disease?

Echinacea is one of the most commonly used herbs. You can find echinacea at just about any health food store, in retail stores (i.e. Walmart, Target), and pharmacies usually have supplements with echinacea. Many people take echinacea to prevent the onset and reduce the severity of colds, the flu, and other conditions. But when it comes to autoimmunity, there is controversy about whether echinacea is safe to take.

With any autoimmune condition there is the presence of pro-inflammatory cytokines. I won’t discuss this in detail, as you can refer to my blog post entitled “The Role of Cytokines In Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions“. In this post I briefly talk about Th1 and Th2 dominance. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is known as a Th1 dominant condition (1), while Graves’ Disease is known as a Th2 dominant condition (2). What this essentially means is that each condition is characterized by the activation of different cytokines. Once again, I discuss this more in my post.

In his wonderful book “Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms When My Lab Tests Are Normal?”, Dr. Datis Kharrazian discusses how different nutrients and herbs can be used to help balance the Th1/Th2 pathways. He discusses how with a Th1 dominant condition you want to stimulate the Th2 pathways, while with a Th2 dominant condition you want to stimulate the Th1 pathway. There is evidence that echinacea stimulates the Th1 pathway, and thus according to the “Th1/Th2 balancing theory”, it would be beneficial for those people with Graves’ Disease, but not recommended for those people with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

Controversy Over Balancing The Th1/Th2 Pathways

While there is no question that The Th1 and Th2 pathways play a role in autoimmunity, trying to balance these pathways by using certain supplements and herbs is controversial. In addition to echinacea, there are other herbs and nutrients which can stimulate one or both pathways. With regards to echinacea, I have given this herb successfully to many people with both Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Now to be fair, Dr. Kharrazian explains that not all cases of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis are Th1 dominant conditions, and not all cases of Graves’ Disease are Th2 dominant conditions. The only way to know for certain is by testing the cytokines. However, I’ve had people who tested as Th1 dominant do fine when taking echinacea. On the other hand, I’ve had some people with a Th2 dominant condition not tolerate echinacea well.

So I’m not suggesting that everyone can take echinacea without a problem. What I am saying is that there is no conclusive research I’m aware of which proves that echinacea only stimulates Th1 cytokines. Just a few years ago it was thought that curcumin and resveratrol only stimulated the Th2 pathway, and because of this it was recommended for people with Th1 conditions to avoid these nutrients. However, research over the past few years shows that both curcumin and resveratrol can benefit people with Th1 and Th2 dominant conditions by regulating Treg/Th17 balance (3) (4). The truth is that there is a lot about herbs and other nutrients that we still don’t know.

By the way, all of this isn’t meant to criticize Dr. Kharrazian’s findings, as I think he has an incredible amount of knowledge, does a ton of research, and I commonly recommend his book to people who have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. All I’m saying is that more research needs to be done to find out the impact echinacea has on autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

Some people can have an allergy to echinacea. In fact, a systematic review which looked at the safety of echinacea said that although severe allergic reactions are rare, in some people, taking this herb will lead to gastrointestinal problems and rashes (5). The truth is that this can happen with numerous other herbs, as while most people don’t experience adverse reactions when taking herbs, there are risks involved, and some people do experience a negative reaction when taking them. People who are specifically allergic to plants in the daisy family are more likely to have an allergic reaction to echinacea.

Should People With Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions Avoid Echinacea?

At this point you’re probably wondering whether people with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis should take echinacea, or completely avoid this herb. There is some concern that taking echinacea can either trigger the development of an autoimmune thyroid condition, or that it might exacerbate a preexisting autoimmune condition. I did come across some evidence involving a couple of patients which showed that taking echinacea might have caused a flare up of their autoimmune condition (6). However, these people also took spirulina, and so it is impossible to determine if it was due to the echinacea, spirulina, or combination of both which flared up the autoimmune response. But even if the flare-up was due to the echinacea, one can’t conclude that taking echinacea will lead to the same results in other people with autoimmune thyroid conditions.

I personally took echinacea when I was following a natural treatment protocol for my Graves’ Disease condition. However, I don’t give echinacea to all of my patients, and so I can’t say that everyone with an autoimmune thyroid condition needs to take echinacea. For the most part, the people who I have recommended to take echinacea have experienced positive results, although there have been a few exceptions. In addition, Kerry Bone, who is an herbalist with over 25 years of experience, commonly recommends echinacea to his patients with autoimmune conditions.

As I’ve discussed in other articles and posts in the past, the quality of the herb is important. While my goal isn’t to promote any specific brands, you do want to be cautious about what you take, and this of course applies to any supplement or herb. There are also numerous species of echinacea, and when I do recommend echinacea to my patients I recommend a product which has both Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea purpurea.

An Important Reminder About Immune Modulating Herbs

It is important to remember that if someone takes an herb such as echinacea, or any other herb which affects the immune system, the ultimate goal remains to address the underlying cause of the condition. Even if many people can benefit from taking echinacea, the truth is that taking this herb usually won’t do anything to address the cause of the autoimmune thyroid condition. So taking echinacea won’t do anything for weak adrenals caused by chronic stress, a leaky gut due to allergens or a poor diet, a hormone imbalance, etc. On the other hand, if someone with Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis has a pathogenic infection of any type, then echinacea can help in the eradication of this pathogen by modulating the immune system.

What is YOUR Experience With Echinacea?

I’m sure many people reading this post have taken echinacea, and I’d be interested in find out what type of experience you have had with this herb. Did you have a positive experience when taking echinacea? Or did it seem to exacerbate your symptoms, increase your thyroid antibodies, etc? Of course it’s common for people to be on numerous supplements and herbs, and so many times it can be a challenge knowing if a specific supplement or herb is responsible for improving or exacerbating one’s condition. But some people are able to pinpoint their improvement or worsening of symptoms due to a specific supplement and herb, and if anyone reading this feels that echinacea helped to improve their health, or perhaps made it worse, then I’d like to hear about this experience.


 

20 Comments

  1. Naami says:

    Dear Dr. Osansky, thank you for all you do & share with us! I always feel supported & informed when i read your posts. Wondering about Spirulina? You mentioned in along with the use of Echinacea, Does that mean that Spirulina could also be unwise to take if one has Hashimotos (Th1 dominant condition)?

    • Dr. Eric says:

      Hi Naami,

      That’s a good question, and I can’t find any research which shows if spirulina stimulates Th1 or Th2 cytokines. I think just as is the case with echinacea, one needs to exercise caution, but it doesn’t mean that everyone who has Hashimoto’s need to avoid spirulina. One question to ask is whether spirulina is necessary to take for those with Hashimoto’s, and I think it’s safe to say that in most cases the answer is “no”.

  2. Carm says:

    January of last year, 2013, my antibodies were dropping from 290 to 150, mostly using selenium, then I got hit with a heavy flu like attack. I started taking echinacea, which seemed to help with the flu like symptoms. When I did my follow up test for antibodies, two months later, my antibodies had increased to almost 300 again. Since, I have been gluten free, mostly, and lots of vitd3. My antibodies are now back to the 170 level, but I think the echinacea did not help with the antibodies. I might be almost in remission by now if not for the herb.

    • Dr. Eric says:

      Hi Carm,

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Although it is possible that taking the echinacea caused the increase in antibodies, it also is possible that the virus you had was responsible for this as well. Of course there is no way to know for certain whether taking the echinacea raised the antibodies, or whether it was due to the virus or another factor. But I’m glad to hear that going gluten free and taking vitamin D3 has helped.

  3. Shelly says:

    I have been diagnosed by a couple doctors that I have Hashimoto’s. Prior to this, I was working for a well known herbal company and I had taken echinacea (which should NEVER be taken for long periods a mistake people make with this herb). And I got worst, not knowing why at that time. I had seen a ND and she told me NEVER let any doctor talk you into taking this herb or any immune builder for that matter. I even have problems with Ashwagandha which is an herb you can stay on. That’s my experience. I think your smart not using this on your patients. That’s my two cents!

    • Dr. Eric says:

      Hi Shelly,

      Thank you for sharing this with us. I like both echinacea and ashwagandha, but of course everyone responds differently to different herbs. There is conflicting information about whether or not echinacea can be taken for prolonged periods of time. Some say that you shouldn’t take it for more than 2 consecutive months. In this blog post I mentioned Kerry Bone, who is a well known herbalist with 25+ years experience. He commonly recommends echinacea to his patients, and he feels most people can take this herb continuously without a problem. The truth is that studies are lacking in this area. There is a study on mice which shows that taking echinacea for a prolonged period of time didn’t cause any harm, and actually provided some benefits. However, human studies are lacking.

  4. Dara says:

    Echinacea helped and still helps. I take it on and off. I had an inflamed and swollen thyroid and much too much T3. It became controlled through diet and supplements. Echinacea always helped me, but some brands more than others (I think the more potent, root containing ones were better). Thanks for the info you give!

  5. connie says:

    Just getting started into understanding the autoimmunity issues that my two of my daughters and I have identified in ourselves and have helped tremendously by removing gluten and switching to a nutrient dense diet…two with rheumatoid arthritis and one with Graves. I simultaneously read this article and another on the web today but with each categorizing Graves as Th1 or Th2 dominant. Is there ongoing research debating this? Thank you for sharing this information.

  6. Bruce says:

    I use the tea only when I feel I may be coming down with something; never just for the heck of it. It does seem to turn the tide.

  7. Meredith says:

    If I started acupuncture/Chinese herbs with a predominantly th1 stimulating herbs and felt better very quickly, is it safe to say I’m th2 dominant? Antibodies have not gone down unfortunately (actually went up a bit), but feel tremendously better. What gives with the elevated antibodies but feeling way better?! Thank tou!

  8. meredith says:

    Dr. Eric,

    I suspect I am TH2 dominant hashimotos. My acupuncturist has me on herbs, many of which are th1 stimulating. I have reduced my thyroid meds by half with this protocol (felt hyper, which went away when decreasing dose). However, I am worried because my antibodies WILL NOT GO DOWN! They have stayed that same over a 2 month period, so maybe i need to give it more time? Would i be feeling terrible if I were reacting badly to these herbs? I guess what I am asking is: should I go more by bloodwork or symptoms? Do I need to give my antibodies more time to go down?

    • Dr. Eric says:

      Hi Meredith,

      As I’ve previously discussed, there is a lot of controversy over which herbs are truly Th1 and Th2 stimulating herbs. And so if you took Chinese herbs which are supposedly only stimulate the Th1 pathway and felt better then perhaps you are Th2 dominant. But I wouldn’t focus too much on taking herbs to balance the Th1 and Th2 pathways, although I can understand you wanting to continue doing this since you have been able to reduce the dosage of medication.

      But just remember that taking herbs, vitamins, minerals, etc. won’t necessarily address the trigger of the autoimmune component. For example, if someone has a leaky gut and has a TH2 dominant condition, you can take every herb and nutrient which stimulates the TH1 pathway, and perhaps this will provide some benefit, but it’s not going to address the leaky gut. So while it’s great that the herbs have helped to reduce your thyroid medication, they aren’t necessarily addressing the cause of the problem.

  9. Luc says:

    I have graves and no idea if I am Th1 or Th2 dominant, as my doctor won’t test for it. But I made a tea of echinacea root and drank it every day for a month and at my next test my thyroid hormones increased. So I stopped and at next months test they went back down.

    I’ve basically been using myself as a guinea pig for the last year. Trying one thing, taking a test, seeing if it works, cutting it if it doesn’t or keeping it if it does. This is the first website I found about alternative treatments for graves and it’s the reason I started taking L-carnitine about a year ago. It seemed to help for a while.

    My question is about bugleweed. I tried it for the first time a few months ago but ran out and have to special order it in my city. My levels did go down at the next test. I wasn’t able to get it for a couple months but my levels continued dropping so I wasn’t worried. Then I hit a stressful month and my levels raised again but by that time I had more bugleweed so against my doctors orders (I know, bad) I didn’t increase my tapazole by 2.5 mg and started taking 4 ml of bugleweed instead. Sadly it, didn’t work and at my next test my levels were even higher. Higher than they’ve been in a while. So now, I’m taking the recommended tapazole amount, doubled the bugleweed, I don’t eat much gluten to begin with but in the fear that I have a leaky gut I’m cutting it, and doing a liver cleanse. Its been 2 weeks and I can still feel the palpitations but I’m really hoping my next test in another 2 weeks will improve… I don’t get why the bugleweed didn’t work this time?

    • Dr. Eric says:

      Hi Lucy,

      Although bugleweed usually does a great job of lowering thyroid hormone levels, it doesn’t always work for everyone. And even though it did work the first time you took it, if the stress you dealt with caused a great deal of immune system dysregulation and a large increase in the thyroid stimulating immunoglobulins associated with Graves’ Disease, then you might need something more potent while trying to address the autoimmune component, which ultimately should be the goal of anyone treating Graves’ Disease naturally. But hopefully you will see some positive changes with your next blood test.

  10. Vanessa says:

    I have been diagnosed with Graves Disease on March of this year. I would like to try something natural before doing something drastic. I was reading about Echinacea and also Lemon Balm. Also is by any chance you someone that you can recommend me in Kennesaw or Atlanta, Georgia.

    Thank you very much,

    Vanessa

  11. Jan says:

    Thanks for your interesting article.
    I have an experience which might be interesting to you.
    I took echinacea for about 6 years and no one told me to only take it for like 14 days in the beginning of winter so I took it pretty much all winter.
    Now I was diagnosed with hyper thyroid disorder, but graves was negative. However hashimoto antibodies tested positive. It’s confusing because hashimoto usually causes a hypo disorder not a hyper. My doctor said that it can first cause a hyper and then a hypo. I have mixed symptoms most of which can either be caused by a hyper or a hypo so that doesn’t help much.

    So my question is:
    1: How likely do you think a 6 year echinacea overdose is the cause for the disorder?
    2: How can I learn more, or what tests can I take to get to the root of the problem?

    I’m now on thyroid hormone regulation medication but I need to find and address the underlying cause and since I don’t have medical background it’s quite complicated.
    Any help and guidance would be appreciated.
    Thank you

  12. Glyn says:

    I have autoimmune problems: Vitiligo, Hypothyroidism and Coeliac, and psoriasis. I also have perennial rhinitis and chronic sinus problems and, in the past, have found a product containing Echinacea and Garlic to be helpful in reducing catarrh problems. However, last time I bought this the information sheet now advises against people with auto-immune conditions using it. This is a pity as, along with steam inhalations, it’s the only thing I had found helpful especially as I don’t like the permanent use of a steroid nasal spray. Is using the Garlic and Echinacea likely to cause serious problems (and doesn’t seem to have i the past). With so many health problems already I am reluctant to add to them!

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Natural Treatment Methods:
Graves Disease Treatment
Hypothyroidism Treatment
Hyperthyroidism Treatment
Natural Thyroid treatment


Conventional Treatment
Methods:
Radioactive Iodine
Thyroid Hormone