OPINION: Why natural cold and flu remedies are not to be sniffed at

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

CMA CEO Carl Gibson
CMA CEO Carl Gibson

Related tags Natural health products Colds

Key ingredients such as echinacea, garlic, vitamin C and elderberry are supported by scientific evidence for reducing the duration and severity of symptoms of a cold, while secondary traditional actives like white willow can assist with the cold symptoms of body aches, pain and fever, writes Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA) CEO Carl Gibson.

As the Australian winter kicks in, it should be noted that many well regarded, gold standard scientific and traditional international monographs on the use of herbal medicines, guide complementary medicine sponsors to develop formulations (and clinical research on these) based on the synergy of different herbal active components, and the high likelihood of alleviation of symptoms.

There are certainly some challenges facing clinical research evidence for herbal medicines in complementary medicines, as opposed to drugs, in that there is a great heterogeneity amongst plant species, and part preparations in herbals, as opposed to homogeneity in monoactive chemical compounds in drug research. Therefore, the size of the body of evidence is limited.

There will also be regional variations in herbs, as well as differences in the manufacturing process. Overall this results in different levels of active constituents amongst the same species of herbs.

That’s why there are so many studies of Echinacea around the world that use different plant parts, extracts and species. This has made studies difficult to interpret, and has caused inconsistencies with the results, particularly for URTI (Upper Respiratory Tract Infections or common colds​).

As always, it is also important to objectively review the body of research. A recent Cochrane Review provides a good example as to why. The Review, ‘Echinaceafor preventing and treating the common cold​’, details the great heterogeneity of echinacea tested products, due to the inclusion of both echinacea purpurea​ and angustifolia​ plant species, as well as varying plant parts and preparations, and cautions that this would influence the consistency of the review results and therefore its relevance to the Echinacea material in cold and flu herbal medicine products. 

“These results have to be interpreted with caution, as the great heterogeneity of tested Echinacea preparations makes comparison and pooling of data methodologically questionable,” ​it states.

However, The EMEA (European Medicines Agency) Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC), is highly regarded by the EU, and internationally, and states that for a primary herbal  cold ingredient, Echinacea purpurea aerial parts is scientifically-backed to help reduce the risk of a cold.

“The HMPC conclusions on the short-term use of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) herb medicines to prevent and treat common cold are based on their ‘well established use’ in this indication. This means that there are bibliographic data providing scientific evidence of their effectiveness and safety when used in this way, covering a period of at least 10 years in the EU for example,”​ it notes.

In addition, there have been hundreds of studies conducted on garlic and vitamin C and their use in reducing symptoms of a cold.

Garlic has been traditionally used in ancient Egypt, as well as Sanskrit records document the use of garlic for 5000 years, and use in China is traced back 3000 years.

Best of the rest

Garlic contains many beneficial compounds including organosulfur compounds and numerous trace vitamins and minerals. Highly antioxidant, it contains free-radical scavenging particles, as well as anti-inflammatory, immune-enhancing, antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Vitamin C is what you would call a ‘super nutrient’. Its main functions in the body range from collagen formation, to immunity support, antioxidant effect, iron absorption assistance and wound healing and blood vessel function.

Meanwhile, White Willow is often placed in cold and flu products as a secondary active ingredient.

It is not intended to help reduce nasal or respiratory symptoms of cold and flu, such as nasal congestion, sore throat or cough, but rather it is a traditional ingredient to assist with relief of body aches, fever and pain, often associated with a cold.

White willow comes from the willow tree (Salix species). The bark contains salicin and this is metabolised in the body to salicylic acid. This active metabolite causes an analgesic effect in the body.

However, White Willow contains more active constituents than salicin such as flavonoids and polyphenols that also contribute to its analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect.

Therefore, multi-component active principle of willow bark provides a broader mechanism of action.

To wrap-up, suppressing the symptoms of common cold and flu this winter season with typically common decongestants and analgesics may not be the only option.

Evidence-backed complementary medicines, such as those containing echinacea, should be seriously considered, in that there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to scientifically-researched herbals and nutrients, which can work together and also provide additional, key supportive phytochemicals.

Carl Gibson is the Chief Executive Officer of peak industry trade body Complementary Medicines Australia

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