Elder(berry) Wisdom for Winter Wellness
Every year, when colds and flus—“winter illnesses”—are going around, we hear things like this: “There’s no cure for the common cold… There’s nothing you can do about the flu, except get the vaccine.”
Naturally, herbal healers have long offered many ways to ward off viral upper respiratory infections, and to treat them once they take hold. Look no further than the common Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) fruit. It’s a well-established part of the old herbal lore, confirmed by research going back decades, and shown to be effective again in current scientific studies. The closely related European and North American Elderberries (S. nigra and S. canadensis) have been featured in delicious jams, pies, and wine, and used medicinally in teas and syrups to fight infection and inflammation—since forever! (For more tips on handling colds and flu, see previous blog posts, here and here.)
Maude Grieve's classic 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, compiles a great deal of the traditional lore, published at a time when herbal healing had only been recently eclipsed in Europe and the US by pharmaceutical-based medicine. Writing about Elderberry preparations, she describes their “curative power of established repute… in the early stages of severe catarrh, accompanied by shivering, sore throat, etc… one of the best preventives known against the advance of influenza and the ill effects of a chill… an invaluable cordial for colds and coughs… especially useful in cases of bronchitis and similar troubles.”
In the mid-1990s, Israeli researchers investigated Elderberry, testing its effects in the laboratory against ten different types of influenza virus. They found that within 24-48 hours, compounds in Elderberry are able to disarm the enzymes that flu viruses use to penetrate and infect healthy cells. This action provides significant protection against the onset and early stages of the flu.
They also tested Elderberry extract on human subjects in a placebo-controlled, double-blind study during a 1993 influenza outbreak at a kibbutz. More than 90% of the group receiving Elderberry were much better within two days, with nine out of ten experiencing complete recovery in two to three days, compared to six days for recovery in 90% of the control group.
Their conclusion: “No satisfactory medication to cure influenza type A and B is available. Considering the efficacy of the extract in vitro on all strains of influenza virus tested, the clinical results, its low cost, and absence of side-effects, this [Elderberry] preparation could offer a possibility for safe treatment for influenza A and B.”
Commenting on this study, Paul Bergner ND noted that Elderberry’s strategy for disabling viral penetration appears to be effective for all strains of the constantly mutating flu virus. Dr. Bergner suggests that this gives Elderberry’s preventive effect an advantage over vaccines, which are changed from year to year in order to target the specific strains of influenza that vaccine makers *guess* might be the most common types in a particular upcoming season.
According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) website:
It’s not possible to predict with certainty if a flu vaccine will be a good match for circulating flu viruses. A flu vaccine is made to protect against the flu viruses that research and surveillance indicate will likely be most common during the season. However, scientists must pick which flu viruses to include in a flu vaccine many months in advance in order for flu vaccines to be produced and delivered on time. Also flu viruses change constantly (called “drift”). They can change from one season to the next or they can even change within the course of one flu season. Another factor that can impact vaccine effectiveness, especially against influenza A(H3N2) viruses, are changes that can occur in vaccine viruses as they are grown in eggs, which is the production method for most current flu vaccines. Because of these factors, there is always the possibility of a less than optimal match between circulating flu viruses and the viruses in a flu vaccine (emphasis added).
A 2004 Norwegian study, using the “gold standard” randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled methodology, gathered 60 patients, 18-54 years old, suffering from flu-like symptoms. They were given either Elderberry or placebo syrup for five days. The Elderberry group experienced relief of symptoms an average of four days sooner than the placebo subjects.
Conclusion: “Elderberry extract seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza.”
In 2016, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial focused on more than 300 airline passengers traveling from Australia. Compared to those receiving Elderberry extract, the subjects given placebo experienced more than twice as many days of cold symptoms, and recorded symptoms rated at more than twice the intensity.
Conclusion: Elderberry produced “a significant reduction of cold duration and severity in air travelers.”
Two studies published in 2019 are also worth mentioning here. One focuses on cyanidin 3-glucoside (Cyn 3-glu), a phytochemical believed to be a key to Elderberry’s actions against the flu virus. Using cell cultures treated either with isolated Cyn 3-glu, or with Elderberry juice, before, during, and after viral infection, researchers found that Elderberry produces direct blocking of infection, inhibition of viral replication in infected cells, and stimulation of immune responses by the cells against the invading virus. While Cyn 3-glu was a focal point for the study, other components of the berry were apparently responsible for important elements of its antiviral and immune-boosting effects.
Finally, a review article provides a meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials of Elderberry for treating cold and flu symptoms. Summing up the research, the reviewers' conclusion is clear: “Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms. The quantitative synthesis of the effects yielded a large mean effect size. These findings present an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza" (emphasis added).
We’re very pleased to have an abundant, aromatic supply of certified organic Elderberries to offer for sale this season, at a competitive price. Steep them as a tea, or make a tasty syrup with them—you’ll stay healthier, and feel better!