Elderberry for the flu

Overview

Elderberry, or black elderberry, is a species of the genus Sambucus, a large shrub native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. However, it has spread to most parts of the United States and is cultivated across the world. 


Evidence suggests elderberry could possibly help shorten the duration of the flu.


In fact, many studies show great results in reducing both the severity and duration of flu symptoms when elderberry products are used within 48 hours of flu symptoms first appearing. However, care must be taken when consuming raw, unprocessed elderberry as its seeds, leaves, bark, and unripe or raw fruit could be potentially toxic as they contain a cyanide-producing chemical called sambunigrin.


This article takes a closer look at the effectiveness of elderberry in relieving flu symptoms and why you should take precaution when preparing it at home.


A Quick Overview

Black elderberry is commonly referred to as European elderberry or as its scientific name, Sambucus nigraHistorically, cultures around the world have used elderberry to treat a number of conditions that range from cough, inflammation, and pain to respiratory problems like cold and flu-like symptoms. Nonetheless, it is only recently that it has gained a widespread attention in the scientific community as a supportive treatment for flu.


It is marketed as a dietary supplement and is available in the following dosage forms:

  • Syrup
  • Lozenge
  • Gummies
  • Capsules


Manufacturers claim that elderberry products can boost immunity and often combine it with vitamin C and zinc.


What Science Says

A number of studies suggest elderberry has a potentially beneficial role in preventing the flu or at least curbing the disease duration. But a conclusive result regarding the beneficial role, especially when it is used alone and not in combination with other products or medicines, is still not validated by high-quality studies in human.


Perhaps the most important piece of evidence backing elderberry is that it is known to possess antiviral and antibacterial properties. Studies show that elderberry can increase production of variety of cytokines including interleukins and tumor necrosis factor, two important modulators of our immune system. It also seems to prevent viral (e.g. flu virus) attachment to our cells.


  • One study reports on three clinical trials between 1995 and 2013 that studied the efficacy of two different elderberry preparations. All those trials found elderberry effective against the influenza virus. However, only 77 people received tretment in the study and the authors concluded that while the results were promising, the safety and efficacy of elderberry preparations in a large population was unclear.


  • A 2016 study found that elderberry juice with other substances like zinc, vitamin C, and others showed antiviral activity against the flu virus H1N1.


  • A 2017 study suggests while the extracts can have antiviral and antimicrobial properties, a lack of a direct comparison between elderberry supplements and standard antiviral medications limits the use of such products.


  • One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study looked at the effect of elderberry syrup on sixty patients (aged 18-54 years) who were suffering from influenza-like symptoms for 48 h or less when they enrolled in the study. It found that those taking elderberry syrup achieved relief from the symptoms on average 4 days earlier than those who received placebo. Interestingly, the elderberry group also reported reduced use of rescue medication. These study results are promising, nonetheless, since it was conducted in 1999-2000, we would surely love to have more recent studies to further support the results.


  • Lastly, one study showed that a particular elderberry fruit extract product, manufactured by Nature's Way (Sambucol), shortened the duration of flu symptoms by more than 50% and reduced the severity of symptoms such as muscle aches and fever when given for 3 days.


An important note regarding most available studies that looked at elderberry treatment for the flu is the amount of elderberry used. A concentrated juice might be able to curb or prevent viral infection and activate host immune system. However, the amounts contained in supplements may be nowhere near the amounts used in studies. Some studies reported using doses of up to 22 grams of elderberry per day!


Safety of Elderberry

The US FDA recognizes elderberry and its products safe for the intended use. But you should keep in mind that the unripe or raw fruit contains potentially toxic substance sambunigrin which can produce cyanogen inside the body.


Moreover, fruit seeds may also contain a small amount of cyanide. The good news, because cyanide is volatile, you can get rid of these toxic substances by heating or cooking the berries or juice. Fortunately, products that you can purcahse over the counter have been manufacuterd or processed in a way that makes them safe to take. If you are not purchasing a dietary supplement of elderberry at the store however, and want to cook or process elderberry at home, it is imperative that it is prepared properly.


One study concludes that elderberries and flowers collected at the foothill are suitable for moderate consumption as they generally contain the lowest levels of the cyanogen-producing chemical.


Summary

  • Elderberry is also referred to as Sambucus nigra and it available in many dosage forms as a dietary supplement to reduce the duration of flu symptoms.
  • Studies have shown promising results for both reducing the severity of symptoms and the duration of both the cold and flu.
  • While elderberry dietary supplements are generally regocinzed as safe but the FDA, raw, uncooked elderberry may be toxic and needs to be processed appropriately for safe consumption.