Elderberries and the Flu: an ancient solution to a modern problem

      With the arrival of flu season, it’s crucial that we take measures to protect ourselves from this potentially deadly virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a flu shot is one of the most-recommended courses of prevention, but it will only lower the risk by 40-60% (“Effectiveness”) and may come with unwanted side effects, such as fever, nausea, and muscle aches (“Safety”). Some people can’t take the flu shot at all because of allergy concerns. So how can we further protect ourselves from the flu virus?

      We protect ourselves by adding Elderberries to our diet.

      Elderberries are the fruits of the Elder Tree, also called the Sambucus Canadensis or Sambucus Nigra, (figure 1) and is a shrub-like tree who’s cultivation dates back to the prehistoric era. It also plays a part in many folktales and superstitions because the Elder Tree is said to ward off witches and other evil influences, including sickness (Grieve, 267).

      Magical or not, the Elder Tree does have significant medicinal value. All parts of the Elder tree are useful, as documented in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Nicholas Culpeper, Herman Boerhaave, and many other herbalists and physicians. Dr. Martin Blochwitz, author of the Anatomia Sambuci: The Anatomy of the Elder, gives us a thorough breakdown of the Elder Tree and its uses (as known in 1631) and maintains that the berries are useful for curing a wide variety of illnesses, from melancholy to the plague and beyond.

      Elderberries have been a staple of natural medicine for generations, but it was not until recent years that scientists began to study the benefits of the berries. Now, Elderberries are quickly gaining a reputation as one of the most effective natural flu remedies on the market today because of their potent anti-viral properties, which stem from their high concentrations of vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B6, iron, phosphorus, and flavonoids (Table 1) (Charlebois, 286).

      When testing the Elderberries, one study found that “flavonoids from the elderberry extract bind to H1N1 virions and, when bound, block the ability of the viruses to infect host cells” (Mumcuoglu et al. 237). Another study expanded upon this finding when they discovered Elderberries “neutralize the activity of the hemagglutinin spikes found on the surface of several viruses, including influenza A and B, and the Herpes virus. When these hemagglutinin spikes are deactivated, the viruses can no longer pierce cell walls or enter the cell and replicate” (Roxas andJurenka 40). In other words, Elderberries block the H1N1 virus from spreading between infected cells, which can rapidly increase the recovery time of those already infected. This theory is confirmed by another study, which learned that “the duration of the illness can be reduced by 3 – 4 days with elderberry syrup compared with placebo” (Zakay-Rones et al. 136).

      In addition to helping us recover from the flu, Elderberries were also found to be “beneficial to the stimulation of the immune system in healthy individuals, as well as in patients with influenza,cancer, and HIV, which have decreased immune functions” (Baraket. al. 292) because of their ability to stimulate the body’s cytokine production. Cytokines are the communicators that direct our cells to places of infection, inflammation, and trauma, and they are crucial elements in our body’s natural recovery (Mandal, 1).

      Based on these studies, we can deduce that Elderberries are the key to protecting ourselves from the influenza virus, as well as promoting a quicker recovery for those who have it. And, since “Natural therapeutics in the form of nutritional supplementation[…]can support the body’s natural defenses, potentially decreasing the incidence of colds and flu, shortening the duration[…]decreasing the intensity of symptoms, and preventing complications” (Roxas and Jurenka, 43), Elderberries are not the only option for natural flu relief. Other ways to naturally combat the flu include echinacea, garlic, apple cider vinegar, and oil of oregano. Of these options, Elderberries are the most efficient and make a great alternative to other, more costly flu medication.

      There is no standard dose for Elderberry usage, but one tablespoon of the syrup per day is recommended when combating the flu (WebMD, 1). It can also be taken as a tea, a lozenge, an extract, or cooked into pies and other edibles (Johnson, 1). However, even though The American Herbal Products Association gave Elderberries a safety classification of 1, which means there are no known side effects or contradictions when using the berries as a treatment (Gardner and McGuffin 777), underripe and raw elderberries can cause gastrointestinal issues, so only use cooked or otherwise processed ones. And, since everyone reacts differently to natural products, it’s always best to talk to a doctor before adding Elderberries to your diet.

Works Cited:

      American Botanical Council, “The ABC Clinical Guide to Elder Berry.” HerbalGram, 2004. 

      Barak, V., et al, “The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines.” European Cytokine Network, Volume 12, Number 2, 2001, pp. 290-6.

      Blochwitz, Martin, “Anatomia Sambuci”, the Bavarian State Library,1631.

      Boerhaave, Herman. “Boerhaave’s Treatise of the Materia Medica, and forms of medicines, adapted to his Aphorisms … Translated from the last genuine edition of the Latin.” W. Innys,1741.

      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Vaccine Effectiveness – How Well Does the Flu Vaccine Work?” National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), 2017.

      —“Flu Vaccine Safety Information.” National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), 2017.

      Charlebois, D., et al, “Elderberry as a Medicinal Plant.Issues in New Crops and New Uses, ASHS Press, 2007.

      Gardner, Zoë, and Michael McGuffin, “American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook.” CRC Press, 1997.

      Grieve, Maud. “A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses, Volume 1.” The University of Michigan, 1931.

      —Figure 1, Elder (Sambucus Nigra LINN), a Modern Herbal, 1937.

      Johnson, Jackie, “The Benefits of Elderberries Sambucus Nigra and Sambucus Canadensis”, The Herbal Academy,2015

      Mandal, Ananya, “What are Cytokines?” News Medical Life Sciences, 2018.

      Roschek, Bill Jr. et al. “Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro.” Phytochemistry, Volume 70, Issue 10, 2009, abstract.

      Roxas, Mario, and Julie Jurenka, “Colds and Influenza: A Review of Diagnosis and Conventional, Botanical, and Nutritional Considerations.” Alternative Medicine Review, Volume 12, Number 1, Thorne Research, Inc, 2007.

      WebMD, “Elderberry.” WebMD Medical Reference, as reviewed by David Keifer, MD, 2016.

      Zakay-Rones, Z., et al. “Randomized Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections.”The Journal of International Medical Research, Cambridge Medical Publications, 2004, pp. 132 – 140.

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