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.