Elderberry extract might well be the most important weapon in your arsenal of herbs to fight influenza. Whether it is seasonal flu or the deadly strain that is becoming pandemic, elderberry extract is considered to be an essential natural remedy.
Concentrated black elderberry extract has been shown to be effective against flu and is among the few natural remedies that have been noted in the medical journals. The studies that are listed here are based on the black elderberry, Sambucus nigra L, and the brand name for the extract is Sambucol.
PubMed states that Sambucol is a natural remedy that has antiviral properties, especially against various strains of the influenza virus. Its effectiveness has been shown in vitro against 10 different strains of the influenza virus, and it reduced the duration of flu symptoms to 3-4 days in one double-blind, randomized placebo study.
The Journal of International Medical Research references another study involving elderberry:
For centuries, elderberry has been used as a natural way to treat colds, influenza and sinusitis, and it reportedly has antiviral activity against herpes simplex as well as influenza. We investigated the safety and effectiveness of elderberry syrup to treat influenza A and B infections. This double blind, placebo controlled study included sixty subjects (18-54 years old) who had been suffering from symptoms of influenza for up to 48 hours during the flu season of 1999-2000 in Norway. The patients were given 15 ml of syrup, either elderberry or placebo, four times daily for five days and used a visual analogue scale to record their symptoms. The symptoms of those given the elderberry extract had an average of 4 days less duration of symptoms and a lower use of rescue medicine. It seems that elderberry extract offers a safe and cost effective influenza treatment.
An ancient cure
The use of elderberry for medicinal purposes is not new. It has, in fact, been mentioned in medicinal texts from ancient times and has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for various ailments. As far back as 400 BC, Hippocrates made mention of the elderberry bush as a ‘medicine chest’ because of its many uses and Pliny the Elder mentioned it several times in his writings on ancient Romans’ practices.
There is a detailed article on Botanical.com on all the historical uses of elderberry.
How elderberry works
Antivirin is the active compound that scientists have isolated. It can be found in proteins of black elderberry and has anti-viral properties that show potential in stopping the flu virus from spreading. According to one study, the active components in Sambucol increase inflammatory cytokine production and thus activate the immune system.
This is important especially with the Avian flu, which has a 60% mortality rate in the 600 cases worldwide that have been reported. Up till now, this flu has been transmitted between, or to, humans very rarely, but it is feared that the virus could mutate and instigate a deadly pandemic.
Since 1997, the time of the first outbreak of avian influenza, there has been concern that this virus (H5N1) could mutate or adapt, thus allowing transmission of the infection to mammals or could merge with human influenza viruses and result in a new virus that would be transmissible and highly lethal. It is believed that such events preceded the flu pandemics of 1918, 1957, and 1968. There is a body of evidence indicating that the influenza A (H5N1) viruses have actually been evolving since 1997 to more virulent forms, with different antigenic properties, internal gene constellations and higher mortality rate among humans.
Zacay-Rones conducted a study in 1995 which indicated that black elderberry was an effective treatment for the Avian flu or more specifically, the Panama B strain of flu.
Sambucol (SAM), a standardized extract of elderberry, brought about a reduction in hemagglutination as well as inhibiting the replication of the human influenza viruses type A/Singapore 6/86 (H1N1), A/Shangdong 9/93 (H3N2), A/Texas 36/91 (H1N1), A/Beijing 32/92 (H3N2), type B/Ann Arbor 1/86, B/Panama 45/90, B/Yamagata 16/88, as well as of animal strains from turkeys and swine in Northern Europe, A/Sw/Ger 8533/91, A/Sw/Ger 2/81, and A/Tur/Ger 3/91, and in canine kidney cells.
In 1993 there was an outbreak of influenza B/Panama among a group of individuals living in a kibbutz, and a double-blind, placebo-controlled study was carried out. The group that was treated with SAM showed higher mean hemagglutination inhibition (HI) titers than the control group in the convalescent phase serologies. The first group also recorded improvement of the symptoms within 2 days in 93.3% of cases, whereas the control group noted 91.7% improvement of symptoms within 6 days. Almost 90% of the first group achieved a complete cure within 2-3 days, compared to at least 6 days in the placebo group. There is at present no medical cure for influenza type A and B. When we consider the effectiveness of this extract on the strains of influenza that were tested, the lack of side effects and its low cost, it could be a potential safe treatment for influenza types A and B.
Tests on influenza type A and B strains have shown that Sambucol can reduce both the symptoms and the duration of flu. One study noted that the subjects who were given Sambucol took fewer additional medications to relieve flu symptoms such as congestion, aches and fever than those who were given a placebo.
The Journal of International Medical Research has accepted the study for publication and the findings were presented at the Conference on Antiviral Research in 2002.
The study monitored 60 patients with flu symptoms, who had been suffering 48 hours or less, of which 90% had the A strain and 10% had the B strain of the virus. Half of them were given 15 milliliters of Sambucol and the others a placebo.
Those in the first group, that were given Sambucol, noted improvement of symptoms after 3 days and almost 90% reported a complete cure within 2-3 days, without experiencing the drowsiness that is usually a side effect of flu treatments.
The placebo group took more nasal sprays and painkillers and started to recover after six days.
Sambucol may not be able to prevent flu, but it can reduce the severity of symptoms and the duration.
How you should take elderberry extract
In the Israeli study in the kibbutz, children were given half a tablespoon of the extract four times a day while adults took one tablespoon. We must point out that Sambucol is the only kind of standardized black elderberry extract that has actually been used in studies.
The extract has a pleasant taste and can be taken in a few different ways:
- Directly from the spoon
- As a tea, mixed with hot water and honey
- As a refreshing ‘soda pop’ kind of beverage, mixed with sparkling water and ice
Remember to store the elderberry extract in a cool and dry place, possibly in the fridge.
There have been no reports of side effects from Sambucol, unlike chemical medicaments. It is safe for children over the age of two and for elderly people, too, although you should always check with your doctor first before taking it, or any other remedy. There have been no contraindications for those suffering from high blood pressure or from asthma, or from those on other medication. However, there have been no studies regarding how safe it is for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
There is ongoing research on the use of Sambucol to treat inflammatory disorders, allergies, cancer, and HIV.