In the past 30 years, flu season has peaked in February more often than in any other month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Good nutrition and basic precautions-such as washing your hands often and keeping your distance from sick people-can help, but they may not be enough to keep you from getting a late-winter illness. The good news is that if a cold or flu virus does strike, elderberry is a natural remedy that can speed up recovery.
There are many different types of elderberry plants, but only two have a history of being used as medicine. Since ancient times, the one most widely used for colds and flu is European elderberry (Sambucus nigra, or black elderberry), which grows in Northern Africa and parts of Asia as well as in Europe. In this country, Native Americans traditionally made tea from American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) to treat respiratory infections.
Scientific analyses of European elderberry preparations have found that the plant is packed with antioxidants and may fight bacteria. However, its ability to overcome viruses may be its most valuable quality.
How Viruses Work
Viruses are basically parasites that cause damage by attaching themselves to a host and then multiplying. Without a host, a virus is powerless.
In the case of a computer, a virus wreaks havoc only after attaching itself to the hard drive, and anti-virus programs prevent or sever such a connection. In the human body, a virus attaches itself by invading cells, and the infected cells actually reproduce the virus. Elderberry seems to stop or reduce such attachment.
How Elderberry Works
In lab studies, scientists have found that extracts of European elderberry work in two ways: They block the ability of various flu viruses to invade and infect cells, which stops the virus from replicating. And, they activate an immune response to fight the virus in cells that have already been infected.
Two human trials have tested a specific standardized, European elderberry extract-Sambucol-against a placebo:
A Norwegian study, published in The Journal of International Medical Research, tracked 60 people ages 18-54 who suffered from flu-like symptoms, including a fever, for 48 hours or less. Those who took the elderberry extract (3 teaspoons of syrup, four times daily with meals), experienced "pronounced improvement" after an average of 3 days, whereas those who took a placebo saw similar results after 7 days. No side effects were reported.
- A study in Israel, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that 90 percent of subjects who took elderberry extract experienced a "complete cure" of the flu in 2-3 days, compared to at least 6 days among those who took a placebo.
- A study of human cells found that the elderberry extract can be effective against 10 different types of flu viruses. Based on traditional use, elderberry extracts may also help relieve cold symptoms, particularly when they are combined with other natural immune-enhancing ingredients.
Research shows that a specific combination of European elderberry flowers and four other herbs-gentian root, cowslip flowers, sorrel, and vervain-relieves colds, coughs, and chronic sinusitis. The formula, available as Sinupret by Bionorica or SinuGuard by Enzymatic Therapy, has been used in Germany for nearly 80 years. Stomach upset or allergic reactions are sometimes side effects.
How to Benefit
For relief from flu, take elderberry in a syrup, pills, tincture, or lozenges, when you first notice symptoms or within the first 48 hours, four times daily with food. Cold remedies and overall immune-enhancing products often combine elderberry with other herbs, vitamins, and/or minerals. Elderberry also has a mild diuretic and laxative effect, and helps to remove toxins.
Sinupret Adult Strength is a proprietary blend of five herbal extracts, including elderberry, to support sinuses and immunity. and immune systems.
Sambucus Black Elder Berry Extract, Kids' Formula combines elderberry with echinacea and astragalus. It is alcohol-free.
Black Elderberry Cold & Flu Relief Quick-Dissolve Tablets help nip cold and flu symptoms in the bud. The tablets also contain zinc.
Steven Rosenblatt, MD, PhD, (doctorrbrand.com) is an integrative physician in private practice in Los Angeles and a leading pioneer in combining Eastern and Western Medicine.