Photo: Getty images/ Madeleine_Steinbach
We're knee-deep in cold and flu season, and if it's been a doozy for you, you're no doubt looking for ways to stop the sniffles—and especially natural remedies. That's where elderberry fits in.
"Elderberry is a berry that grows in little clusters on the black elder plant. It has been used as an herbal remedy for more than a century," says Robin Foroutan, M.S., RDN, a registered dietitian specializing in integrative medicine at the Morrison Center in New York City and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "What's so interesting about it is that in the years before antibiotics, elderberry was one of the most often-used medicinal remedies by herbalists, physicians and pharmacists," she says.
If you look at the elderberry, you'll notice its deep purple hue. That's a giveaway for just how packed the berry is with phytonutrients, or plant antioxidants. And while the berry is indeed rich in vitamin C, as well as vitamin A, iron and potassium, it's also believed to have antiviral and antimicrobial properties.
"Elderberry contains proteins that block viruses from entering our cells, has been found to stop viruses from replicating, and it may also increase levels of virus-fighting antibodies," says Foroutan. Translation: taking the berry may help safeguard you from sickness in the first place, but if you do fall ill, taking it at the right time (and the right amount) can prevent the infection from getting worse.
Foroutan points to one telling randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study from 2004 in the Journal of International Medical Research on 60 patients who had flu-like symptoms. Those who took a half ounce of elderberry syrup four times a day for five days got better four days faster compared to a placebo group. "The added benefit was that those same people had fewer and less severe symptoms and they took much less over-the-counter medication," she says.
A meta-analysis in 2019 in Complementary Therapies in Medicine concluded that supplementing with elderberry was effective in quelling upper respiratory symptoms like cough and sore throat when taken at the onset of symptoms. (The researchers also note that colds and flu are often treated with antibiotics, which do not work against viruses and instead can promote antibiotic resistance, making alternative remedies even more important.)
Oh, and if you're someone who travels all the time, elderberry is potentially a helpful defense mechanism. "There's a really great study that showed benefits for people taking elderberry leading up to and on the plane," says Foroutan. Those who took elderberry extract before and during a flight to Australia (and ended up sick) experience much shorter duration of their illness and less severe symptoms compared to a placebo group.
If you're interested in the herbal remedy to shore up your defenses against nasty sickness-causing invaders, there are two ways to take it: daily and when symptoms pop up.
Supplementing with elderberry extract daily for the duration of cold and flu season in order to prevent infection is safe, says Foroutan. (Remember, it's always a good idea to let your health care provider know about all supplements and medications you're taking.) If you think you're getting sick, take it ASAP—and increase your dose.
You can take elderberry a variety of ways, including extracts/syrups, lozenges and gummy supplements. Often, it's paired with other antivirals like zinc or echinacea for a one-two germ-fighting punch. And while the gummies are delicious, there's no reason to take a supplement that contains lots of added sugar, which can dampen your body's immune response, says Foroutan. When choosing any supplement, look for one that has a low amount of added sugar. Plus, you don't need a lot anyway—elderberries are deliciously naturally sweet already.
One good option is Gaia Herbs Rapid Relief Elderberry Syrup, pictured above, which is formulated for both adults and children over age 2. Take as directed.
Another tasty option? Making elderberry tea or syrup at home. You can buy dried berries online and boil them down with water into a syrup (add cinnamon sticks for added flavor), says Foroutan. Or, boil elderberries in a pot of water, strain, and drink as a tea. If you make syrup at home, cook it thoroughly and take a tablespoon daily. At the first sign of symptoms, bump it up to a tablespoon every two to three hours until you're feeling good again. Drink the dose straight or incorporate the syrup into unflavored seltzer for an immune-boosting mocktail.
Elderberry is best used as part of an all-around immune-supporting lifestyle, says Foroutan. It can't replace healthy habits, so continue to eat your fruits and veggies, exercise regularly and wash your hands. Be well.
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