Elderberry: A Natural Way to Boost Immunity During Cold and Flu Season?

A doctor weighs in on this plant thought to fight the flu

In some parts of the world, herbal remedies for common ailments that have been passed down through generations are an accepted part of life.

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“If you have acid reflux, you drink chamomile tea. If you have abdominal bloating, you drink ginger or peppermint tea,” says Irina Todorov, MD, an integrative medicine physician.

With cold and flu season nearing, people who take this approach may be reaching for elderberry. Teas and syrups made from the elderberry plant have been commonly used to fight upper respiratory infections and boost immunity for hundreds of years.

There are many different kinds of elderberry plants, but the flowers and berries of Sambucus nigra, commonly known as European elder, are the most studied and used in herbal formulas, Dr. Todorov says.

Elderberry-based supplements — syrups, gummies, lozenges, pills and teas — are believed to work by supplying the body with antioxidants and boosting its natural immune response. But are they actually effective in controlling flu symptoms?

What the research says about elderberry

One proprietary formulation of elderberry extract sold under the name Sambucol® has shown an ability to fight flu symptoms in a few small studies, Dr. Todorov says.

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In one randomized study of 60 adults with flu-like symptoms, those who took 15 mL of the elderberry syrup four times a day saw symptoms clear up on average four days earlier than those who took a placebo syrup.

Another study tested its effectiveness in air travelers. Those who took the elderberry syrup had a shorter duration of cold symptoms that were less severe than the control group.

Although these studies are promising, don’t forgo your flu shot to take elderberry. These studies are small, and more research on a large scale is needed to support the recommendation of elderberry as a method of prevention or treatment for cold and flu, Dr. Todorov says.

But properly prepared berries and flowers from the European elder plant seem to carry a low risk of adverse effects, according to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. (Other parts of the plant, however, should not be eaten, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are not recommended to take elderberry, the NCCIH says.)

So for most people, it likely wouldn’t hurt to include elderberry as part of a healthy diet as flu season approaches, along with foods high in vitamin C, vitamin B6 and vitamin E, to support the immune system. Of course, check with your doctor, and make sure you select a quality product.

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Choosing a quality product

“One approach is to use specific products that have been studied in clinical research with positive effect,” Dr. Todorov says.

Another approach is to read the label carefully and look for the following information:

  • Common name and botanical name of the active ingredient. It’s important to know which species of herb is used, as different species even within the same family may have different effects on the body.
  • Part of the plant that was used for this specific product. Different parts of the same plant can have different effects. For example, the roots, bark and unripe or uncooked berries from the elder plant contain toxic compounds and should not be used in raw form.
  • Whether a whole herb or an extract of the herb is used. If it’s an extract, is it a standardized extract, and what is the active ingredient?
  • Manufacturer’s name and contact information
  • Lot number
  • Expiration date that has not yet passed

“Although some studies indicate that elderberry extract may relieve cold and flu symptoms, more research on a large scale is needed to support these findings,” Dr. Todorov concludes. ­­­“Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy herbal tea made from elderflower and jam from elderberry as part of my diet.”

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