Echinacea herbal medicines are traditionally used for the treatment of
inflammatory and viral diseases such as cold, cough and upper respiratory
infections. Recent studies show that they can also be used as antioxidants
or free radical terminators to prevent cardiovascular disease, arthritis,
and aging. In fact, Echinacea has become one of the most widely used herbal
medicines and dietary supplements in Europe, North America, and Australia.
The parts of Echinacea used in herbal medicines are the roots and aerial
parts of three species: Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea. angustifolia and
Echinacea pallida. The main active compounds of Echinacea are caffeic acid
derivatives (phenolic compounds), alkamides and polysaccharides. Among
caffeic acid derivatives, several components, such as caftaric acid,
chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, echinacoside, and chichoric acid, are
identified from Echinacea extracts. Chicoric acid is the major phenolic
compound in E. purpurea, but minor in E. angustifolia and E. pallida.
Echinacoside is the main phenolic compound in E. angustifolia and E.
pallida, but only trace is found in E. purpurea.
Studies have shown that chichoric acid has immunostimulating effects, as
well as antioxidant properties. Recently, it has been found to inhibit
HIV-1 replication. Echinacoside does not contribute its immunostimulating
activity, but it has antioxidant and cicatrizing activities.
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The pharmacological activity of each Echinacea species appears to reflect
the slight variation in the amount of active ingredients and their chemical
profiles. All three species of Echinacea are found to have a protective
effect on the free radical-induced degradation of collagen, which is
probably due to its polyphenolic compounds. Extracts of E. purpurea roots
have greater free radical scavenging capacity than those of E. pallida or
E. angustifolia due to more amounts of phenolics constitute found in E.
purpurea. E. purpurea is also well known to boost the immune system in
prevention of common cold, flu, and chronic respiratory infections because
it is rich in cichoric acid.
Nutraceutical preparations of Echinacea are primarily based on the extracts
or juices from their roots, leaves, stems, and flowers. In herbals and
supplements of Echinacea, the active ingredients in recommended therapeutic
amounts depend upon the quality of plant material, preparation procedures,
formulations and storage conditions. These active ingredients, especially
phenolic acids, are mainly responsible for the pharmacological activities
of Echinacea extracts and plant materials. Therefore, the profile of their
content represents a useful fingerprint to define the identity and the
quality of these products.
To ensure the quality of products, it is important to have reliable and
practical analytical methods for the determination of phenolic acids in
complex natural matrices. It is also a necessary step to clearly identify
the different species of Echinacea to distinguish the efficacy of the
different plants and their parts for proper therapeutic usage.
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