What is echinacea?
Echinacea is a traditional herbal remedy, originating in North America, but being brought over to Europe by Alfred Vogel, after he was given a handful of the precious seeds as a gift. Medicinal preparations of echinacea have traditionally been created by using one of three species of Echinacea: Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench (favoured by A.Vogel), Echinacea angustifolia DC. and Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt. Both the root and the above-ground stems and flowering parts (aerial parts) of echinacea can be used medicinally (A.Vogel's formulation includes 95% aerial parts, 5% root) and the herb echinacea is regularly used in fresh extracts (always favoured by A.Vogel), or sometimes the herb is also used in its dry form.
Whilst the constituents of echinacea vary slightly across the difference species, echinacea purpurea is well known for its combination of naturally occurring chemicals, including polysaccharides, alkylamides, caffeic acid derivatives (phenylpropanoids) and glycoproteins.1
Fresh is best
Alfred Vogel was a firm believer in 'fresh is best' and herbs should also be left in their whole form, in order for them to offer the most therapeutic benefits.
Today, these ideas have been backed by more modern science. Fresh extracts of echinacea purpurea, when compared to their dry counterparts, have been found to contain a 3 times higher content of alkylamides.2 This is particularly telling, as the alkylamides are arguably, the most important of the active ingredients present in echinacea, and are thought to be responsible for the immuno-regulatory effects on the immune system.1
What causes the tingling sensation of echinacea on the tongue?
With the wide variety of echinacea products now available on the market, you might now wonder, how to assess the quality on one version, versus another. Whilst not a fail-safe method, traditionally in North American folk medicine, the presence of a local anaesthetic effect (more commonly recognised as a tingling on the tongue sensation), was recognised, and accepted as an indication of good quality preparation of echinacea.3 Nowadays, this is more widely recognised as an indication of a good content of alkylamides, by the wider scientific community.4,5,6
What is the tingling so important?
You might wonder how the alkylamides are able to cause this distinctive tingling sensation in our mouths. Well, it might just be part of the therapeutic effects this impressive herb has to offer. Whilst nowadays, echinacea is licensed for the symptomatic relief of cold and flu infections, traditionally, the herbal preparation echinacea was used for a much wider raft, of some rather weird and wonderful symptoms!
This 'tingling' or analgesic effect was often made use of topically, in order to help treat a variety of wounds, sores or bites on the surface of skin; whilst when taken orally, the tingling sensation in the mouth, was handily followed by a flow of excess saliva excretion, meaning that echinacea could also be classed as a 'sialogogue'. Cleverly, this meant that this excess flow of salvia was able to successfully distribute echinacea around the entire mouth and for this reason, together with some of the unique antibacterial properties that the herb boasts, it was often used as dental remedy by Native American tribes.7
Nowadays, the tingling sensation is merely a nice reminder that you have a good quality product in your hands, but the origins of this herbal remedy can certainly still be doted on and celebrated.