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Echinacea for Athletes

Echinacea (Echinacea spp., Asteraceae) is best known for its reputation for shortening the duration of colds or flu when used at the first sign of illness. The immune-enhancing properties of the root and herb have been the subject of hundreds of scientific studies. Another immune system application for echinacea was recently reported by a group of sports medicine specialists, who studied the effects of echinacea, magnesium supplements and placebo on immune function in 42 male athletes undergoing an exhausting triathlon sprint (Berg et al., 1998).

Exercise generally stimulates immune function, but exhaustive exercise actually suppresses some aspects of immune response, leading to an increased risk of infection.

For the study, participants took placebo, 43 mg of magnesium, or 8 ml of the pressed juice of Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench for 28 days before the triathalon (Echinacin®, Madaus AG, Germany). Magnesium was selected as a reference nutritional supplement required for optimal muscle function. The researchers tested blood samples for a wide variety of immunological factors at baseline, after 28 days of treatment, and one and 20 hours after finishing the race.

The investigators found several significant differences between the echinacea group and the others. "The results of this double-blind, placebo-controlled study demonstrate that oral administration of the pressed juice of Echinacea purpurea for 28 days to trained athletes clearly modulates the subsequent changes in immunological variables induced by participation in a triathlon sprint." The placebo-treated group showed classic increases in natural killer (NK) cell and total T-lymphocyte counts, while the echinacea group experienced no significant changes in NK cell count and a slight reduction in the total number of T-cells. All of these changes, however, were small, and "lay within the range of baseline variations." The echinacea group also demonstrated significant decreases in interleukin 2R (IL-2R) in blood and urine, and increased IL-6, all suggesting a protective effect of echinacea against exertion-induced immunosuppression.

The most impressive results, however, were not those measured in the lab, but those observed by the athletes themselves. During the intensive training, three of the 13 athletes in the magnesium group and four of 13 in the placebo group developed colds, while none of those taking echinacea were affected. Even more impressive, those in the magnesium group missed a total of 13 days of training because of infections (colds), compared to 24 days in the placebo group. Those in the echinacea group missed no days of training. This study highlights an important new use of echinacea in sports medicine. Due to the limited size of this pilot study, the authors recommend further clinical trials to validate the results. - Rob McCaleb

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[Berg A, Northoff H, König D, Weinstock C, Grathwohl D, Parnham MJ, Stuhlfauth I, Keul J. Influence of Echinacin (EC31) treatment on the exercise-induced immune response in athletes. Journal of Clinical Research 1998; 1: 367-380.]

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