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Should You Take Elderberry Extract to Help Fight Flu?

A reader insists you should take elderberry extract to ward off the flu. Another reports that this herbal medicine sped recovery from a cold.
Branch of black elderberry. Elderberry is a medicinal plant

Flu season is still going strong. While public health experts assure us it is not too late to get a flu shot, some readers would like to know how to treat it and feel better faster if they do catch it. One reader has taken us to task for not telling others to take elderberry extract for relief.

Would You Take Elderberry Extract for Influenza?

Q. Why haven’t you recommended elderberry extract against the flu? As I understand it, tests have proven it to be better than Tamiflu.

I never get flu shots even though almost everyone else in my retirement community gets them. Several still catch the flu.

At the first sign of a throat tickle, I start taking elderberry extract. I haven’t had even a sniffle.

Scientific Studies of Elderberry Extract:

A. There is some evidence suggesting that elderberry has antiviral activity. One meta-analysis found that elderberry supplements (Sambucus nigra) can reduce upper respiratory symptoms such as congestion and cough (Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Feb. 2019).  Scientists have also found that a compound in elderberry, cyanidin 3-glucoside, acts in several ways to inhibit influenza infection (Journal of Functional Foods, March 2019). They found that it blocks viral surface proteins and boosts the body’s immune responses.

We found only one trial comparing elderberry (in combination with Echinacea purpurea) to oseltamivir (Tamiflu) for treating influenza (Holistic Nursing Practice, March-April 2016). In this study, more than 400 people with flu responded equally well to both treatments. We would love to see further research on herbal treatments for influenza.

We would not suggest that you take elderberry extract instead of getting your flu shot. But having a backup treatment available is not a bad idea. We heard recently from a reader that elderberry extract helped her recover quickly from a cold.

Could You Take Elderberry Extract to Recover from a Cold?

Our reader said that she had seen our article on elderberry rob as a cold remedy. She purchased an elderberry product at the health food store, planning to keep it on hand. When she awoke one day with severe cold symptoms, she followed the instructions on the bottle. The following day, she noticed that her symptoms were very mild. By the third day she felt well, although she could still hear the effects of the cold on her voice. That was the last day she felt she needed to take elderberry extract, since the fourth day she felt entirely well. She told us that this was the quickest recovery from a cold she can recall. Perhaps we should all take elderberry extract at the first signs of a respiratory tract infection.

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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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  • Hawkins J et al, "Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials." Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Feb. 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.ctim.2018.12.004
  • Torabian G et al, "Anti-influenza activity of elderberry (Sambucus nigra)." Journal of Functional Foods, March 2019. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2019.01.031
  • Ross SM, "Echinacea Formula (Echinaforce® Hotdrink): Effects of a proprietary Echinacea formula compared with oseltamivir in the early treatment of influenza." Holistic Nursing Practice, March-April 2016. DOI: 10.1097/HNP.0000000000000144
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Our daughter told us about taking elderberry extract, and she came home with a bottle of the syrup, mixed with other ingredients. We’ve all been taking two tablespoons once per day. She recently came down with the flu, although it was not diagnosed, but was running a fever of 100.3 degrees (F). She continued taking the elderberry extract along with Tylenol, and was completely over it in just three days. Now, I realize that she was never officially diagnosed with it, as she doesn’t have insurance and didn’t get the flu shot. But I had both Type A and Type B last year myself after having the vaccine, and it sure looked to us like she had the flu. So, I don’t know if it works for certain or not, but we will all continue to take it on a daily basis, especially in these uncertain times. Thanks for all that you guys do to keep us informed on all medical matters! We really appreciate you, and I listen on NPR every chance I get!

I once picked up an Elderberry product after my daughter recommended it, but I didn’t buy it because I read the label, and it warned that one should not take it if one has autoimmune issues. I have since seen this same information on the Internet.

Our family used this many years ago, but we stopped because we were seeing what we interpreted as unwanted estrogenic effects (premature breast buds) on a young female. Stopped using the elderberry and the estrogen effect receeded. There are other, safer anti-viral remedies available. No need to take this risk!

I have a terrible reaction to flu shots. I get an upper respiratory infection within one or two weeks after getting the shot. It takes massive amounts of antibiotics and antiviral medication to get rid of it. This happened 4 years in a row after getting the shot. I now take Elderberry and have for several years. So far I have had very good results. I have not had as much as a cold since taking it. I think it is worth checking out.

If elderberry is anti-viral, might it be protective against coronavirus? Seems like a case of can’t hurt. Maybe echinacea, too. I know that combining echinacea and vit C keeps my colds mild (but not short).

Since reading about elderberry syrup on People’s Pharmacy a few years ago I have foraged berries and made my own extract, which tends to get mold on the top even in the refrigerator, and then purchased a commercially made syrup. I begin taking a tablespoon per day immediately when feeling like I am coming down with something. Within a day or less I feel fine and have not had cold or flu since.

Our family uses elderberry gummies. Since the placebo effect can be very powerful, I don’t know whether it’s the elderberry or placebo, but regardless, there does seem to be a positive effect. People who have never used elderberry should be aware that there is a definite laxative effect.

When I lived in Belgium elderberry jam, etc were commonly accepted treatments for colds.

Two years ago I had a terrible bug, even though I had the flu shot. Last year I heard about the Elderberry Syrup. I started taking it at the beginning of the flu season. I also got the flu shot. I did the same thing this year. I have not had anything. Not even a cold. So, I feel that it could be the syrup. It is worth a try.

I keep on hand Traditional Medicinal’s Echinacea Plus with Elderberry tea that I take when I feel the first cold symptoms. I’ll take four or five cups a day for at least two days and it seems to help head the cold off or reduce the symptoms — and it tastes quite good too, especially with lemon juice and honey.

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