Ask The Expert

Echinacea: Nothing To Sneeze About

Q: Can echinacea cause allergies?

A: Overall, echinacea (Echinacea spp) appears to be safe; however, anything can cause allergic reactions. Echinacea is an enormously popular herb used to prevent or treat colds and the flu. Although most reference books on echinacea point to its many years of safe use, and the Commission E even suggests it is safe for pregnant women, those with allergies may have some reason for caution. Australian researchers recently evaluated five patients who developed serious allergic reactions after taking echinacea. Allergy symptoms ranged from dizziness and itchy eyes to chest constriction and severe difficulty breathing. For four of the five subjects, this was their first-ever dose of echinacea. The researchers also reviewed 51 adverse-reaction reports involving the herb that were submitted to the Australian Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee between 1979 and 2000. Half of these cases involved some sort of allergic response. The researchers concluded, "Given its widespread (and largely unsupervised) community use, even rare adverse events become inevitable. Atopic patients [those with allergies] should be cautioned appropriately." I agree; even rare events are real. That said, I still don't think allergy-sensitive individuals should steer completely clear of echinacea. Just be aware of possible reactions to the herb.

Lead And Calcium Supplements

Q: I've learned that some calcium supplements contain lead. Should I avoid them for that reason?

A: Lead is all around us. And, with our sophisticated detection methods, it's difficult to find lead-free anything, let alone calcium supplements that come from natural sources. Lead, even in minute amounts, is toxic, but there is no scientific agreement as to how much we can safely expose ourselves to each day. Some researchers suggest a daily limit of 6 mcg from all oral sources (not just supplements). Other lead experts have suggested more conservative limits of approximately 1 mcg per day. Still, the question remains as to whether any intake of lead, though impossible to avoid, can be considered safe.

Some supplement manufacturers who use third-party verification report that their supplements contain less then 1 mcg of lead per 1 gram of calcium. Because that is a reachable amount, it seems reasonable to limit the lead contained in your calcium supplements to that level. California, a state that typically has more stringent safety standards than the rest of the country, limits the amount of lead in calcium supplements sold there to 1.5 mcg per 1 gram of calcium. If in doubt, ask. Any respectable supplement manufacturer should provide the information on lead content.

Dan Lukaczer, ND, is director of clinical research at the Functional Medicine Research Center, a division of Metagenics Inc., in Gig Harbor, Washington.