You may have already put up a mighty first line of defense against colds and flus this season — a flu shot, good hand washing hygiene and more. But sometimes, it’s just inevitable. You feel a scratchy throat, you start sneezing and the body aches creep up. Now you have to try and take down that pesky cold or flu, stat!
When it comes to cold and flu busters, there may be a remedy you’ve been overlooking: elderberry. Extracts from the medicinal plant have been used in folk medicine for centuries. There’s also research showing that elderberry may have some benefits in diminishing symptoms of cold and flu, as well as preventing the illnesses.
For example, one small study involving 60 people that was published in the Journal of International Medical Research found those who took elderberry extract shortened their flu symptoms by a whopping four days compared to peers who took a placebo.
Here’s what else health experts say you should know about elderberry, and its potential for preventing and fighting colds and cases of the flu this season.
How Does Elderberry Help Fight Colds And The Flu?
Elderberries are packed with immune-boosting antioxidants and vitamins, health experts explain. According to Dr. Amy Rothenberg, N.D., a licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts, elderberries contain anthocyanins, which are a boon for your immune system, and are also a source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Vitamin B6, which also help support the immune system.
Many of Rothenberg’s patients over the last three decades have sworn by elderberry to prevent upper respiratory tract infections and to treat colds, coughs, sore throat and the flu.
“Patients who travel use elderberry to help keep them healthy on the road, especially when traveling long distances by air,” Rothenberg says.
A 2016 study involving airplane travelers confirmed that elderberry extract could reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms among travelers.
More people are becoming interested in natural remedies to combat upper respiratory symptoms like congestion and cough, says Dr. Joel Portnoy, M.D. with ENT and Allergy Associates. He recommends the plant to patients who are suffering from symptoms common to viral illnesses, like the flu and rhinovirus, which causes common colds.
What Else Is Elderberry Good For?
While elderberry can help shorten illnesses, it’s also a good idea to take it as a preventative measure during the winter season to help prevent influenza, says Dr. Jaquel Patterson, N.D., a licensed naturopathic physician practicing at Fairfield Family Health in Fairfield, Connecticut, and the president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
Not only does it have immune system benefits, she says, but it also can reduce inflammation and has cancer-inhibiting properties. In fact, researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture discovered that elderberries (along with chokeberries and black currants) are as much as 50 percent higher in antioxidants than some of the more common berries. Because of this, these purple superberries can protect against cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, according to the research.
Aside from respiratory infections, allergies and reducing heart disease risk, elderberry can also be used as a diuretic and laxative, says Rebecca Park, Registered Nurse from New York City and creator of the natural health resource RemediesForMe.com.
What Forms Does Elderberry Come In?
Elderberry extract is typically available in either a syrup or capsule form, says Dr. Elroy Vojdani, M.D., a functional medical expert and founder of Regenera Medical. He says that the side effects are relatively benign, with some cases of abdominal pain or indigestion.
“Those of us that practice functional or integrative medicine use elderberry extract quite often,” he says. “I have not seen significant side effects in any of the patients who I have prescribed it to.”
However, he says, elderberry can lower blood sugar levels, so if you’re a diabetic, you should take extra care in monitoring your blood sugar when using it. Also, pregnant or nursing women should avoid elderberry supplements as these supplements have not been sufficiently studied to be deemed safe for use in those conditions.
What’s A Recommended Dosage?
Elderberry is best taken the moment you feel you may be coming down with a cold or flu, Vojdani says.
When using a syrup form of elderberry extract, a standard dosage is 1 to 2 tablespoons, four times a day until your symptoms resolve. In capsule form, it’s recommended that one takes about 1000mg of plant extract (each manufacturer has a slightly different amount) twice a day until your symptoms resolve, Vojdani says.
Why Don’t We Hear Much About Elderberry?
If elderberry can help prevent illness, and banish cold and flu symptoms, why don’t we hear more about this antioxidant-rich fruit?
Lee explains that, for the most part, pharmaceutical medicines are typically recommended first by physicians. But that could be changing. Over the last five to 10 years, there’s been an upsurge in the use of ancient herbal remedies to treat common conditions, says Vojdani.
“People are starting to look for more natural solutions to heal themselves or prevent illness,” he says, pointing to the surge in popularity of turmeric being used for anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving purposes.
Have you ever tried elderberry to combat a cold or flu?