There are lots of questions right now concerning how to support a healthy immune system. Whether you are trying to protect against a seasonal cold, flu, or possibly a viral infection, the same general recommendations you’ve heard before apply: get plenty of sleep, reduce stress, consume nutrient-dense and vitamin-rich foods, stay well-hydrated, get active, and practice good hygiene. I’ve got some information you need up on the blog about how to stay at home and be healthy, so make sure to stop by and check that out. Although there is no magic cure-all, and all the healthy food in the world can’t stop every virus, but you can include strategic nutrient-dense, functional foods like elderberry as an antiviral to support the immune system. Any time of year is a good time to focus on your health!
Elderberry is a traditional medicinal plant known for its antiviral and anti-influenza properties. Its use is recorded through history in Europe, North Africa, parts of Asia, and among Native Americans. Hippocrates referred to it as his “medicine chest” and other healers and herbalists have used berries from this common shrub for centuries. Walk into any health food store or natural grocery and you may notice a variety of elderberry products in the supplement aisle. But is there research to back up these claims? Is this the immune-boosting, anti-flu supplement to keep us safe this year?
Efficacy against Disease
Elderberry, or Sambucus nigra, has been used historically as an anti-flu agent, to treat HIV/AIDS, to support the immune system, as an anti-inflammatory, as a cancer-fighting agent, as a fever reducer, as an anti-herpes treatment and as a diuretic and laxative. Elderberry has been best studied on influenza and positive outcomes have been observed in research dosing one tablespoon of liquid extract four times daily which reportedly reduced symptoms and duration when given within 48 hours of initial flu symptoms. In another study, participants received 15 milliliters of elderberry syrup four times a day for five days and found their symptoms were relieved an average of four days faster than the placebo control group. In vitro (testing in a lab using liquid cultures), elderberry concentrates have been shown to inhibit influenza A and B, displaying antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Research shows that the flavonoids (antioxidants) in elderberry actually bind to the virus, blocking its ability to infect host cells. One study even suggests that the H1N1 influenza inhibition of elderberry flavonoids are comparable to known anti-influenza medications on the market.
There is a lot of buzz in the media right now concerning cures for COVID-19 and terms such as ‘cytokine storm’ syndrome. You might be wondering what that even means (good question). This phenomenon is a potentially life-threatening condition that results when our body overproduces various types of immune cells and as a result, can lead to increased systemic inflammation that mimics sepsis. That’s right…now the immune system is TOO good. According to the Natural Medicines Database, one of my go-to resources when it comes to researching evidence-based approaches to health and wellness, there is no strong evidence that elderberry includes cytokine storm syndrome or that it can be used as a treatment or prevention strategy for COVID-19. Instead, we can use elderberry for its antiviral properties to aid in general, overall immunity. Think of elderberry as one of our powerful antioxidants in our toolkit to support optimal health, wellness, and support immunity. There’s still a lot to learn about novel viruses like COVID and what we can do to protect ourselves.
The way this medicinal plant works is thought to be connected with the flavonoid antioxidants, specifically anthocyanidins, in the ripe fruit. Other aspects of elderberry fruit include tannins and essential oils which are thought to aid in its antiviral properties. Elderberry has also been shown to reduce inflammation so a reduction in flu symptoms may be partly attributed to these healthful assets.
Safety and Interactions of Elderberry
Short-term studies between two to five days have suggested that elderberry extracts and lozenges are safe when taken orally. Keep in mind that elderberry leaves, stems, and unripe or uncooked fruit contain toxic compounds that can cause dangerous and damaging effects so do not consume in any way other than a product that has been treated and packaged properly. Because elderberry is an immune stimulant, it interacts with immune-suppressing medications and some autoimmune diseases.
There is some evidence that elderberry can help shorten the duration of flu symptoms if taken in the correct dose soon enough after symptoms have started but be sure to check with your doctor before taking this supplement to ensure it is safe for you as well as which product and dosing is most appropriate. Using elderberries to support the immune system is simply one way to provide additional support during times of increased risk of illness. But listen, if you’ve got the flu, make sure to be speaking with your medical team to see if you need any additional mediations, testing or support and if it makes sense for you to use a product like elderberry. If you are interested in making your own elderberry syrup, then you need to check out my recipe below. It is so simple to prepare and only contains a few ingredients. You can find dried elderberries by searching online and ordering from Amazon or in natural grocery stores like Whole Foods Market or PCC.
- Some research supports that the use of elderberries can help shorten the duration of flu symptoms.
- Check with your doctor before taking elderberry as a supplement to ensure it is safe for you as well as which product and dosing is most appropriate.
- Don’t forget general recommendations for staying healthy- get plenty of sleep, reduce stress, consume nutrient-dense and vitamin-rich foods, stay well-hydrated, get active, and practice good hygiene.
- You can include strategic nutrient-dense, functional foods like elderberries as an antiviral to aid immunity.
Check out these vitamin-packed, antioxidant-rich, immune-supporting drinks you can add in to aid your immune system Strawberry Orange Turmeric Immunity CBD Tonic, Turmeric Ginger Golden Milk Tea, and Vegan Turmeric Banana- Mango Lassi.
What do you think? How do you support a healthy immune system? Let me know and make sure to check out the references for this article if needed on the Foodtrients site and the Natural Medicines Database.
Using Elderberry to Support the Immune System
- 1 ounce dried elderberries
- 2 cups cold water
- 2 teaspoons lime zest from 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
- 2/3 cup honey
- Combine dried elderberries, cold water, lime zest and ginger in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the liquid has reduced in half to approximately 1 cup.
- Use a sterilized mason jar to preserve the syrup. Pour the water into the mason jar through a fine-mesh strainer. Use a clean cheesecloth to press the remaining elderberries into the stainer so more liquid flows into the jar.
- Add the honey to the reduced liquid in the mason jar and stir until well mixed. Alternatively, put the lid on the jar and shake it well.
- Make sure to label and store it in a cool, dry location like a pantry or your refrigerator. Once you open the jar, make sure to store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
Ginger Hultin,MS, RD, CSO
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