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Have You Tried Elderberry to Ease Your Cold Symptoms?

Elderberry rob. a homemade concentrate of berries and spices, is used as a type of hot toddy to ease cold symptoms. Have you tried it?

What is your favorite cold remedy? Sometimes people rely on drugstore products, but they may not be aware of the potential side effects from a multi-symptom cold product. As a result, we frequently prefer home remedies, such as chicken soup or thyme tea. Some readers are curious about herbs, especially elderberry (Sambucus nigra or Sambucus canadensis).  This botanical product has been used for decades or longer. Above all, it has a reputation for boosting the immune response. Some readers have tried it, while others are wondering if it would help them.

Can Elderberry Help Person with COPD?

Q. I have COPD. During the winter months I am very susceptible to cold or flu virus infections that affect my lungs.

I had recently read about Sambucus syrup being very popular in Germany and decided I should give it a chance. A standardized elderberry syrup I found in the drugstore is supposed to be similar to the Sambucus syrup sold in Germany. I purchased a couple of bottles and started taking the recommended “maintenance” dose. Time will tell if it is effective for me.

The Importance of COPD:

A. People like you with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) need to be extra careful about upper respiratory infections. They can make breathing even more difficult. In addition to staying current with your influenza immunizations, you might consider additional protective approaches.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra or Sambucus canadensis) has a reputation as a remedy for viral respiratory infections. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that elderberry supplementation reduced symptoms significantly (Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Feb. 2019).  The authors suggest that elderberry would be preferable to antibiotics and certain other prescription drugs in treating viral infections like colds. (Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections.)

Another review compared elderberry supplements to oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Elderberry actually resulted in a lower chance of flu complications and adverse events (BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, April 7, 2021). The scientists found no evidence that elderberry overstimulates the immune system, which had been a theoretical concern. However, the usual recommendation is to take this herb only during cold and flu season, not year-round.

You can learn more about elderberry and other natural approaches to respiratory infections in our eGuide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.

Herbs to Fight Colds:

Q. I know a lot of people who have had colds lately. When I start to sneeze or have a runny nose, I take elderberry in capsules or syrup. I also take andrographis, astralagus and echinacea.

Why these remedies work, I haven’t a clue. But I have found they have to be from a reputable herb company, or they may not work. With these herbs, I have stopped many a virus trying to make in-roads into my respiratory system.

Do Herbs Have Anti-Viral Activity?

A. Modern medicine has not been very successful in combating the common cold. There are no FDA-approved drugs to speed healing of this condition.

Data suggest, however, that echinacea has antiviral activity (Virology Journal, Sep. 9, 2020).  So do elderberry and andrographis. Echinacea, andrographis and astragalus also appear to stimulate the immune system (Alternative and Complementary Therapies, Feb. 1, 2018).

We would love to see randomized clinical trials testing these herbs against viral infections. However, there are a lot of obstacles to this type of study (Pharmaceuticals, July 2011).  Many different viruses cause “cold” symptoms, and it is difficult to figure out which one may be responsible for an individual’s misery. Moreover, as you have noted, the quality of herbal supplements can vary. That’s one reason we are partial to our underwriter, Gaia Herbs. Its elderberry products, including syrup and delicious gummies, are of the highest quality.

You can learn more about ways to prevent and treat such viral infections in our eGuide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.

Is Elderberry Syrup an Immune Booster?

Q. I am hearing about elderberry syrup as an immune booster. Do you have any pros or cons?

A. Elderberry juice or extract is a traditional tonic for colds and coughs. In fact, researchers have found that the extract from one Sambucus species has antiviral activity against coronavirus in test tubes (Frontiers in Pharmacology, Jan. 11, 2021).  Moreover, other laboratory research has found that an extract of the flowers, in combination with beta-glucan and vitamin D3, may help reduce inflammation (Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, Dec. 2020).

Can You Make Elderberry Syrup at Home?

Q. Is elderberry syrup good for the immune system and can it be made at home?

A. Because of COVID-19, scientists have examined a number of botanical products reputed to enhance immune response (Phytotherapy Research, June 2021). Although research is inconsistent, the authors conclude that elderberry does affect the immune response. Some of the effects may help people ward off viral infections.

In addition, elderberries can be used to treat a cough that lingers after a viral infection (Monaldi Archives for Chest Disease, Aug. 10, 2021). A review of clinical trials found that herbal preparations can reduce symptoms from influenza-like illnesses if taken within two days of the first sign of infection (Advances in Integrative Medicine, Dec. 2020).

If you have elderberries, it isn’t complicated to make a syrup. Mix two cups of dried elderberries with four cups of pure water and bring it to a boil. Simmer for half an hour and take it off heat to steep for an hour. Strain and measure the liquid. Add half as much honey as you have liquid and store in the fridge. Here is a video in which Dr. Tieraona Low Dog demonstrates the technique.

A Warning:

Be cautious if you make your own elderberry extract at home, though. Unripe or uncooked berries, along with the rest of the plant, contain cyanide and are poisonous. There is more information in the next comment from a reader.

Elderberry Rob for Cold Symptoms:

Q. Now that we are into cold season, it’s a pity that my favorite remedy isn’t better known. Elderberry rob is a traditional treatment for coughs and colds. To make this, elderberries are boiled with honey, cinnamon and allspice and the resulting syrup is strained and mixed with a little brandy as a preservative. A few spoonfuls of this mixed into hot water usually reduces cold symptoms very effectively.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) grows wild in many places in North America. I suspect that the homemade syrup probably retains more of the plant’s properties than most over-the-counter Sambucus preparations.

A. Elderberry juice preparations have long been used to treat respiratory infections.

Although it is not well studied, an analysis concluded that

“Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms” (Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Feb. 2019).

An Australian study found that air travelers taking elderberry were less prone to colds and had milder symptoms (Nutrients, March 24, 2016). Some Sambucus compounds prevent viruses from replicating or attaching themselves to respiratory tract tissues (Virus Research, Nov. 2019). This research utilized an Asian species of Sambucus, while the clinical trial investigators used S. nigra, a European species. However, the American S. canadensis is similar.

Our reader is right that S. canadensis grows in many places, especially if they are a bit damp. Bushes in our yard bear lots of flowers that we collect and dry. In the winter, we use them to make a pleasant tea to calm a cough.

Whether making a rob as described or other any other elderberry preparation, be sure to use only ripe berries and do not include stems or leaves. Cyanide-related compounds in the stems can be toxic. You can learn more about this herb here.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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