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Echinacea is a plant that’s believed to support the immune system. It’s often taken to help fight the common cold or flu. But is there any evidence to support these claims, and what about its effect on fertility? Are there any benefits of taking echinacea for men who are trying to conceive?
In this article, we’ll explore the current evidence for the medicinal use of echinacea and look at the research around echinacea’s impact on fertility.
Echinacea is a wild plant, also known as the American coneflower. It grows on the plains of North America and has been used as a traditional herbal remedy by Native Americans since the 18th century. For hundreds of years, it was used to treat various illnesses, including scarlet fever, malaria, blood poisoning, and diphtheria.
Echinacea’s use began to die down after the introduction of antibiotics, but its popularity surged again in the 20th century as supplements became more widely available and popular. It is now commonly used across the globe, thanks to claims it can support the immune system and relieve symptoms of mild ailments.
Three types of echinacea are widely found in herbal medicines. These are:
Echinacea purpurea is the most frequently used type and can be taken in tea, tablet, liquid, or ointment form. The above-ground parts of the plant are used for treating colds, upper respiratory tract infections, slow-healing wounds, and urinary tract infections. The root part is also used for the treatment of flu symptoms.
Remember that, as an herbal medicine or supplement, echinacea is not FDA-approved or regulated.
Historically, echinacea was seen as a “cure-all” and was used to treat most illnesses and symptoms. Over time, it was predominantly applied to soothe minor cuts and bruises, as well as to relieve coughs and the symptoms of the common cold and flu.
Some studies have suggested the chemicals within echinacea can support immune function, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and have antioxidant effects. Echinacea contains several chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects, including polysaccharides, alkamides, glycoproteins, and flavonoids. Due to this, many herbalists prescribe echinacea as a treatment for common infections and slow-healing wounds.
A study in 2018 found that prophylactic treatment with echinacea, with a dose of 2400 mg/day over four months, had a small preventative effect, and could help reduce the length of the common cold. The evidence is mixed about whether it can lessen the frequency of colds.
Some preliminary findings show echinacea may help treat liver diseases, although more clinical trials are necessary to examine this link.
There is a significant lack of scientific studies into the relationship between echinacea and fertility. Those that have been carried out were on animals, and found mixed results.
A 2021 study on diabetic rats suggested echinacea may have a beneficial effect on hyperglycemia and insulin resistance. With regard to fertility, there was an increase in sperm motility (movement) as well as a protective function noted in the sperm morphology (shape) in the rats treated with echinacea. Those rats also had an increase in a protein that helps produce testosterone. It was therefore suggested echinacea has the potential to improve diabetes-related male infertility, although human trials are needed to investigate this further.
Alternately, research carried out in 1999 indicated high doses of echinacea may have a negative effect on fertility. Researchers carried out a study on oocytes (eggs) taken from hamsters, which were incubated in echinacea for an hour before introducing sperm. The study measured sperm integrity and how well the sperm were able to penetrate the egg. Researchers found that when eggs were exposed to high concentrations of echinacea, there was reduced penetration of the egg. The sperm exposed to high concentrations also exhibited DNA denaturation, a form of damage to the genetic material inside sperm.
These findings indicate exposure to high levels of echinacea could have negative effects on fertility due to the degradation of the sperm and the reduced ability of the sperm to penetrate the egg’s outer membrane, which is vital for fertilization to take place. This evidence supported an earlier study, which showed echinacea interfered with sperm enzymes used to break down the oocyte wall to allow the sperm to enter and fertilize the egg.
Other studies carried out on ducks and rams have found improved reproductive performance when supplementing the animals’ diets with echinacea. There is an absence of human studies exploring echinacea’s impact on fertility.
There is no evidence that echinacea can benefit those TTC, except for one study involving diabetic rats. More research is needed to examine the interactions between this herbal medicine and fertility.
The science in this area is lacking, but given the evidence, it is probably best to avoid taking echinacea, or only use it in very small quantities when trying to conceive (TTC) or considering sperm freezing.
The good news is that scientific evidence supports the use of other herbs and supplements for their favorable effects on male fertility and hormone health.
Here is a summary of the supplements you may want to consider when looking to improve your fertility:
Ashwagandha is an herb with growing scientific support for its benefits to overall health, particularly for those TTC. Research links it to improved sperm count, increased testosterone, and better sperm quality.
Fenugreek is widely available and has been credited for healing many ailments throughout history. It can be taken in capsule or tea form, and research shows it may have a positive effect on sperm count, testosterone levels, and sperm quality. It’s also been associated with increased libido.
Taurine is an amino acid made naturally by our bodies and is linked to brain, muscle, and eye health. Taurine deficiency can occur and result in poor sperm health, lower sperm count, reduced testosterone levels, and low libido. If you are found to be low in taurine, you can supplement to help avoid these issues. The easiest way to increase your intake of taurine is to include more sources of it in your diet, such as seafood and certain meats.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ19) is a powerful antioxidant that helps support the growth and maintenance of cells in our bodies. It plays a significant role in fertility and declines naturally with age, which is why it is often recommended as a supplement to support couples TTC. It has been linked with improving sperm quality by limiting oxidative damage to the sperm as well as improvements in sperm motility, concentration, and morphology.
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