Cate Sibley, PharmD
Cate Sibley, PharmD, graduated from Northeastern University in Boston and has experience as a home infusion clinical pharmacist and a staff pharmacist in the retail setting. She has a passion for teaching others how to live a joyful, vital life using complementary health approaches.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the dreaded cold and flu season. And these nasty viruses seem to appear earlier each year.
Although it is important to get a flu shot, there is no vaccine for a cold. Are there natural ways to protect patients from the cold and influenza viruses?
One potential remedy, elderberries, have been used for thousands of years as both medicine and in food.
Elderberries are thought to prevent or shorten the duration of herpes outbreaks, decrease pain and inflammation, and reduce symptoms of upper respiratory infections.
Many people consider the elderberry plant one of the most powerful for preventing and treating colds and influenza and swear by its antiviral properties. The results of some studies show that elderberries do indeed have significant benefits against cold and influenza symptoms.
In one placebo-controlled, double-blind study conducted by Israeli virologist Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, 93.3% of the people taking an elderberry preparation reported significant improvement in influenza symptoms within 2 days of starting it, compared with the 6 days it took for the placebo group to see improvement.1
In another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study performed in Norway, researchers gave either a placebo syrup or elderberry syrup to patients who reported having flu-like symptoms for less than 48 hours. The results were similar to Dr. Mumcuoglu’s results. On average, the patients who received the elderberry syrup saw relief of symptoms 4 days earlier than the group that received the placebo syrup. As an added benefit, the patients in the elderberry syrup group reported taking significantly fewer over-the-counter medications in hopes of symptom relief.2
Researchers also have found that people who have taken elderberries have higher levels of antibodies against the influenza virus, showing that not only may the berry be able to treat flu symptoms, it may also be able to prevent influenza infection.3
So how are elderberries thought to work as an antiviral? There are probably many mechanisms of action, but a prime one is that elderberries contain hemagglutinin protein. This protein has been shown to stop a virus’ capability to replicate by inhibiting its ability to penetrate the cell wall, thereby preventing the virus from causing infection if taken before exposed. If elderberries are taken after infection, that keeps the virus from spreading, which reduces the duration of influenza symptoms.
Are elderberries safe? It seems that the elderberry plant is generally safe for most people. Eating the raw seed can lead to nausea and vomiting for those who eat too many of them, however. And beware of commercial powders, as some have been reported to cause vomiting because they may contain the seeds.
Where can one get elderberries? Fresh ones may be hard to find, but click here to see if any local farmers harvest them. Once one gets the fresh berries, it is time to make the concoction. Dried elderberries actually work, too, and they are sold on online markets such as Amazon.com.
Here is a recipe for basic elderberry syrup, which can last in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 months if stored in a glass bottle: take ½ to 1 tablespoon daily for adults to prevent illness; or if the flu does strike, take ½ to 1 tablespoon every 2 to 3 hours, instead of once a day, until symptoms disappear.
For those who don't have a local source or would rather not make their own, pre-made elderberry tinctures and syrups are plentiful online, too. Follow the directions on the label of whichever product is purchased.
All in all, elderberries could be a great option for patients to add to their medicine cabinets to prevent and treat cold and flu symptoms.
Learn more about this year's flu season with this upcoming CE webinar that addresses available vaccines, efficacy for use, and best practices for counseling patients.
1. Zakay-Rones Z, Varsano N, Zlotnik M, et al. Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus Nigra L.) during an outbreak of Influenza B Panama. J Altern Complement Med. 1995;1(4):361–9.
2. Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of Influenza A and B virus infections.” J Int Med Res. 2004;32(2):132-40.
3. Roschek Jr. B, Fink RC, McMichael MD, et al. Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry. 2009;70(10):1255-61. doi: 10.1016/j.phytochem.2009.06.003.