Science Has Spoken And Elderberry Isn't Total Nonsense

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Rosmarie Wirz/Victoria Gnatiuk/Getty

It’s cold and flu season, my friends, as indicated by the fact that yesterday, a regular well visit for one kid turned into our doc recommending that both kids get their flu shot and one of them having the most epic meltdown I’ve yet witnessed in my 13 years of parenting. My 13-year-old son went into I’m-a-tough-teenager-and-can-totes-handle-this mode, but my 9-year-old lost every last shred of her chill. Still, I made her get the shot. Sorry kid, I love you and I’m sorry you’re scared and had to endure a little pinch, but the flu shot isn’t about just you or us. The evidence has spoken, and we will participate in herd immunity.

Another virus-fighter the evidence has spoken on? Elderberry.

Maybe you’re like me and somehow missed the last couple decades’ worth of memos regarding elderberry’s efficacy (seriously, how did I miss this?), but apparently elderberry is where it’s at. It’s actually not complete woo-woo. Science has spoken, multiple times, and more studies are in the works to compound the evidence that elderberry is indeed a useful and effective medicine.

Elderberry has been used for a variety of reasons for hundreds of years all over the world, even as far back as ancient Egyptian times — they apparently used it to improve their complexions. But it was a 2002 scientific study published in the Journal of International Medical Research in 2004 that began to give elderberry some modern, mainstream traction.

Researchers studied 60 patients aged 18-45 who had been suffering from flu-like symptoms for under 48 hours. The test group, given four doses of elderberry syrup per day, saw their symptoms relieved four days sooner than the placebo group. Ninety percent of the elderberry patients were completely cured after just two to three days, without the drowsiness or other side effects of common flu treatments. They also relied less on painkillers and other flu relief medicines compared to the control group.

The 2002 study was careful to note the small size of its pool of participants and indicated that further studies of larger groups would be needed to corroborate their findings. Since then, multiple studies seeking to determine the efficacy of elderberry in relieving flu symptoms have produced similar results.

A 2016 study in Australia found that for air travelers suffering from cold viruses, symptoms cleared up two days sooner for those who took an elderberry supplement.

Another Australian study published in spring of 2019 in the Journal of Functional Foods revealed that it also makes a difference when you take an elderberry supplement. Researchers found that elderberries “can directly inhibit the virus’s entry and replication in human cells, and can help strengthen a person’s immune response to the virus.”

While researchers noted that the elderberry compound was able to stop the virus from infecting cells, they found it was even better at “inhibiting viral propagation” for cells already infected. This study is different from some of the earlier ones because scientists examined the effects of elderberry at the cellular level. An elderberry juice serum was applied to cells before, during, and after infecting them with the influenza virus.

A similar study of elderberry at the cellular level found that elderberry flavonoids binded to the H1N1 virus in a manner comparable to Tamiflu, a drug that has been trusted for decades to prevent and treat influenza.

The studies examining the effects of elderberry at the cellular level produce results consistent with those of studies done on human subjects. The consensus seems to be that elderberry really does shorten the duration of many types of viruses.

And, of course, those who rely on elderberry will enthusiastically confirm its benefits via personal anecdote. When I asked folks who’d tried it how they felt about it, I was greeted with many positive responses. Though a couple of people admitted they wondered if their experiences were due to placebo effect, the response was overwhelmingly “elderberry is the shit.”

Ashley from Roanoke, VA, uses it for her son at peak sick times, like at the start of the school year. “I gave it to my 3-year-old the first month of school and he didn’t catch anything,” she said, “even though others in his class were sick.”

Andrea from Farmington Hills, MI said, “I have gifted bottles to friends that are habitually sick all winter every winter, and they swear by it now.”

“We typically forget about elderberry syrup until our 6-year-old brings home a classic cold in late fall,” said Jamie from St. Paul, MN. “Once we get back on the regimen of taking it daily at bedtime we rarely get sick and the bugs we catch tend to be mild and run their course quite quickly.”

Stephanie, from Arvada, CO, kind of blew my mind with her story: “When my son was three, he woke up one morning with a significant fever. I immediately gave him elderberry then made an appt for the doctor. Later that day he was diagnosed with Flu B. We opted out of tamiflu. He slept all day. By the next afternoon he was playing outside again. By the third day, he felt fine. We all took elderberry that week, and nobody else in the house got the flu, including the sibling who shared a room with him.”

I have officially hopped on the bandwagon and glued myself to it, with elderberry syrup, because I’m assuming it’s sticky and also good for my skin.

Buying elderberry is easy. I bought the Nature’s Way brand on Amazon because it was reasonably priced, had high reviews, and was noted as a favorite by the Chicago Tribune.

Now remember, elderberry is a great tool to have in your virus-smashing arsenal, but it absolutely does not replace the flu shot. Vulnerable populations like babies, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems rely on herd immunity to protect them, and elderberry definitely can’t accomplish that. So please, for the love of all that is good and holy, get your freaking flu shot.

Also remember, as with any medicine or herb, it’s important to check with your doctor to be sure it’s safe for you or your child. There are a few situations in which elderberry is contraindicated, for example, with people who have autoimmune disorders, so you’ll definitely want to clear elderberry use with your doc before diving in.

You also want to head to the doctor if you suspect that you or your child have the flu.

That said, in most cases, it won’t hurt to keep some elderberry in your medicine cabinet. If you do end up contracting a strain of the flu or a rough cold virus, it could dramatically reduce your symptoms and the time you’re sick.

Here’s wishing all of us an elderberry-enhanced, virus-free flu season!

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