University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Herbal Medicine: Echinacea and Kava
The use of herbal medicine and remedies as opposed to traditional prescription medications is becoming increasingly popular among doctors, therapists, and patients. Many herbs, whether administered in the form of tea, capsules, or simply eaten, have been proven to ease various pains and ailments; and when taken on a daily basis, there are herbs that help maintain overall health and wellbeing (Meuninck, 2008, p. 4).
Studies have shown that two herbs in particular, Echinacea and kava, have been effective in treating a series of symptoms including anxiety and depression, headaches, and fibromyalgia (Mindell & Hopkins, 2009, p. 219). The use of these herbs benefits doctors and patients alike, as they offer an alternative treatment to symptoms that many people experience on a regular basis. Echinacea can be commonly found in beauty products, diet supplements, and herbal teas. Due to its ability to balance and maintain the immune system, some people take Echinacea in one form or another every day (Watson & Preedy, 2008, p. 687).
This herb, in fact, is among the most popular and widely used dietary supplements in the United States, with people taking Echinacea or a type of derivative from the plant. According to the Southern Medical Journal, Echinacea today is used mostly to treat and prevent upper respiratory tract infection, or URI, which includes the influenza and the common cold—illnesses that account for 40% of the time that Americans lose from work and 30% of the time they call in sick from school (Islam & Carter, 2005, p. 311).
It is evident that this particular herb can be used for the treatment of a specific temporary ailment as well as in a preventative manner. As soon as a person feels as if they have a cold coming on, they are advised to begin taking the herb orally in order to combat the spread and onset of the cold or flu virus. Echinacea has scientifically been proven to possess many anti-inflammatory properties, which explains its effectiveness at fighting respiratory problems (Zili et al. , 2007, p. 232).
This herb, however, is not only beneficial in terms of warding off common cold symptoms. It has also been able to ease pain and discomfort associated with other diseases as well. First, it is crucial to understand that Echinacea can be an extremely powerful herb that may be used to fight different forms of bacteria, which is why it is used so often when a person has a cold or flu virus. A Canadian study observed six Echinacea extracts that are currently sold commercially, and the effect that those extracts had on 15 human pathogenic bacteria as well as two pathogenic fungi.
Five bacteria were especially sensitive to the Echinacea extracts—Streptococcus pyogenes, Legionella pneumophila, Haemophilus influenzae, Propionibacterium acne, and Clostridium difficile—which indicated that the herb did have a significant effect in fighting certain forms of bacteria, such as that which causes strep throat (Sharma et al. , 2008, p. 111). Many factors were taken into consideration, such as the effect of light on the bacteria and fungi, as well as the forms and preparations of the different extracts; and this greatly reduced any assumptions made.
This study was quite thorough, although it was limited by the number of extracts, bacteria, and fungi that they were able to test. With the samples they did test, however, they were able to conclude that “…certain preparations of Echinacea… could provide useful protection or symptom alleviation in cases of pharyngitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and various cutaneous lesions, including acne vulgaris, [and] wound infections…” (Sharma et al. , 2008, p. 115).
Another study outlined in the Journal of Women’s Health also conducted a survey to determine how many women with fibromyalgia turned to herbal treatment as opposed to other forms of medicine. The assumptions were that women were taking herbs because they worked, and not because they were left with no other alternative—that is, fibromyalgia is quite complicated and there are very few medications that can alleviate the pain. The test subjects therefore could have been turning to herbs like Echinacea as a last resort as opposed to taking the herb because it actually helped with their discomfort.
Additionally, the limitations of this study are that the group of subjects was not randomly selected, and the results were entirely self-reported. At the end of the study, it was concluded that women with Fibromyalgia were likely to take herbal supplements and use herbal remedies in order to treat the several symptoms associated with their condition (Shaver et al. , 2009, p. 716). This shows Echinacea’s applicability to a wide range of illnesses and symptoms, and how it can be used by naturopaths and other doctors in the treatment of their patients as opposed to over-the-counter medications.
Unlike Echinacea, kava is an herb that has received mixed reviews in terms of the safety of its use. Kava is an anxiolytic drug that has been used for hundreds of years by people in the Pacific Islands, yet it is currently banned in the United Kingdom (Ernst, 2007, p. 415). When used in large quantities, it has been shown to have toxic effect on one’s liver; but when administered in safe doses, there are many people who swear by its healing benefits. The Pacific Islanders have been known to use kava as a sedative, a hypnotic, and aphrodisiac, an antiseptic, and a diuretic.
Kava has also been popular in Germany, where people use various kava products for the treatment of anxiety, restlessness, and abdominal discomfort (Richardson & Henderson, 2007, p. 418). One of the greatest benefits of kava use, however, is for the treatment of anxiety and depression—especially since those disorders, while mental, can result in serious physical symptoms. An Australian study sought to determine the mental effects of kava by studying a random group of 28 adults suffering from major depressive disorder and anxiety.
Assumptions included the test group not taking additional anti-depressants on the side, and that the small dose of kava would be enough to take effect. This study was also limited by the mix of kava with St. John’s Wort (Sarris et al. , 2009, p. 41). Rather than it being administered in a pure form, it was more of an herbal cocktail. Both, a placebo and a kava supplement were administered for four weeks each. At the end of the study, the majority of those in the study group reported having a reduced feeling of depression after taking the kava rather than the placebo.
Although they did not report their quality of life or level of anxiety as being significantly improved, it is clear that their overall state of depression was affected by the kava. Regardless of the fact that some professionals believe kava to be dangerous and toxic, its long history in Pacific Island culture far outweighs its risks (Sarris & Kavanagh, 2009, p. 828). Kava has been one of the ways in which many islanders have been able to maintain mental and emotional balance and fight depression without the use of anti-depressants, which are typically linked to dangerous side effects.
Consider some of the physical symptoms of depression and anxiety—migraines, muscle tension, and widespread aches and pains. With kava’s abilities to aid in one’s state of depression, people can benefit from the plant’s positive effects on pain in general. So long as it is administered in proper doses, as they do in the Pacific Islands, kava provides people with another option to treat depression and any other symptoms that may be caused by tension or emotional imbalance.
Although herbs alone cannot cure all forms of disease or discomfort, these studies illustrates how Echinacea and kava both possess health benefits that may help with several symptoms and disorders. Herbs such as kava may be disputed for their levels of potential toxicity, but many prescriptions pills can prove to be just as dangerous or even more so. Regardless of whether Echinacea or kava can necessarily cure a certain illness, they provide patients and doctors with another option—a natural approach to relieving pain or sickness, as opposed to over-the-counter medications.