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Right now, there is a lot of hype about how bad the flu season is. I am not sure how true this is because I’ve seen very little data about the actual numbers of people are getting sick, and the only reported deaths (that I have seen) have been in the elderly. But let’s suppose that this is a really bad flu season, like everyone’s saying. There are two general camps right now:
- Get your flu shot!
- Take your elderberry!
If you’ve been around for any length of time, then you know I don’t think the flu shot is a good idea. Elderberry has been hailed as a completely safe, natural, effective alternative remedy. But…is it?
Natural Remedies Warrant Caution Too
Natural remedies aren’t without their drawbacks. They are not necessarily safe just because they are “natural.” Natural things can be poisonous, or can affect certain people adversely. Natural remedies are potent and serious. We must never make the mistake of thinking that natural remedies are safe simply because they are natural.
Some natural remedies are truly unsafe for certain people. Alfalfa, for example, because it is high in vitamin K, can cause problems in people who have blood clotting disorders and even increase the likelihood of stroke or autoimmune conditions! It must be used with caution in vulnerable populations, despite that it is beneficial to many. (Yes, it’s in my pregnancy tea recipe…and for the average woman or especially those who are at risk of hemorrhage, it is a good idea. For anyone who has lupus, autoimmune, or blood clots, it is not.)
Elderberry has been hailed as safe because, well, it’s a food. We eat elderberry in pies! Surely it can’t be dangerous if it is consumed this way?
Unfortunately, I’ve run across new evidence that elderberry’s effects are truly potent…and not necessarily beneficial to all people, in all cases.
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Taking a Closer Look at Elderberry
As it turns out, from my early research, elderberry is very potent. This is both good and bad. It’s good because, well, it works — it’s not some sort of “placebo effect” or wishful thinking. It’s bad because of the way it affects people — at least some people.
Elderberry does have a strong effect on flu:
Sambucol was shown to be effective in vitro against 10 strains of influenza virus. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study, Sambucol reduced the duration of flu symptoms to 3-4 days.
Other studies confirm this:
A significant improvement of the symptoms, including fever, was seen in 93.3% of the cases in the SAM-treated group within 2 days, whereas in the control group 91.7% of the patients showed an improvement within 6 days (p < 0.001). A complete cure was achieved within 2 to 3 days in nearly 90% of the SAM-treated group and within at least 6 days in the placebo group (p < 0.001).
This study also shows that elderberry is effective in preventing viral infections like flu.
However, elderberry was discovered to also have this:
We conclude from this study that, in addition to its antiviral properties, Sambucol Elderberry Extract and its formulations activate the healthy immune system by increasing inflammatory cytokine production.
Another study shows the same thing:
The Sambucol preparations increased the production of five cytokines (1.3-6.2 fold) compared to the control.
That is what concerns me.
Children who develop ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) were shown to have depressed immune systems and decreased cytokine production (at birth), including low TH-2 levels (newborns should be TH-2 dominant because this protects the mother from rejecting the baby as a foreign object). However, later, after an official diagnosis, they were shown to have increased levels of cytokines, especially those with regressive autism. In that second study, they specifically note this:
Moreover, when the ASD group was separated based on the onset of symptoms, it was noted that the increased cytokine levels were predominantly in ASD children who had a regressive form of ASD. In addition, increasing cytokine levels were associated with more impaired communication and aberrant behaviors.
Then there is this:
Severe influenza is characterized by cytokine storm and multiorgan failure with edema.
This study also shows that cytokine storm is associated with severe flu.
Principal-component analysis of the data reveals three clusters of similar cytokine responses: [TNF-α, IL1, IL10], [IFN-γ, IL2, IL4, IL8, and IL12], and [IL6]. IL1, IL6, IL10, and TNF-α have the highest degree of variability in response to uncertain initial conditions, exogenous effects, and parameter estimates.
So, increased cytokine levels — especially long-term — are not exactly beneficial. And anything that might increase cytokine levels too much, especially the inflammatory cytokines, could contribute to various severe or long-term illnesses. Some of the major cytokines associated with the dangerous cytokine storm (IL-6, IL-10, TNF) were increased by the use of elderberry!
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Is Elderberry Good or Bad?
Well, all that confuses the issue. Elderberry increases the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which may be associated with a cytokine reaction and severe complications. But, elderberry has never been specifically associated with a cytokine storm, nor causing any problems with immune function. It appears only to boost these cytokines at the time of illness in order to fight it off faster. Based on what the studies show, in otherwise healthy individuals, the boosting of these cytokines may be what helps to fight off the infection more quickly.
Interestingly, elderberry has also been shown to have anti-bacterial properties, including against a couple of strains of strep bacteria (including Streptococcus pyogenes, which is responsible for many strep throat infections). That study also notes that elderberry may be useful in preventing complications of viral illnesses, like bacterial pneumonia, and because its protection is “non-specific,” infections would not become resistant to it as they do to antibiotics. (You can buy elderberries here.)
This study shows that chronic (daily) consumption of elderberry wasn’t effective at increasing overall health (by measures of liver and kidney function), but appeared to be safe.
The bottom line of all of this? Elderberry has many amazing properties and appears safe in all studied populations. I would recommend, personally:
- Taking elderberry in fairly large/frequent doses only at the onset of illness or upon exposure, but not all the time (up to 1 tsp. per hour for children under 6, and up to 1 tbsp. per hour for older children/adults).
- Continuing use for 2 – 5 days as needed, then discontinuing
- Caution is warranted in individuals with autoimmune conditions, who may be better off choosing a different remedy due to their disturbed cytokine production
These guidelines are a bit different from what most say, which is that a daily dose is a good idea. Elderberry is so potent and powerful that it ought to be treated like medicine more than food. It should be safe for pregnant and breastfeeding moms (whose immune systems may be lowered, especially in pregnancy, and could benefit from the boost) and there has been no report of any adverse effects from use in these cases.
Based on all of this research, I will post a new elderberry syrup recipe next week that incorporates the best combination of natural remedies. This syrup may also be used for certain bacterial infections and I recommend using FCLO in larger doses along with it. (You can buy elderberries here.)
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What Else Helps?
Fermented foods, especially true lactic-acid ferments (anaerobic ferments) have been shown to activate the TH-1 immune system and prevent viral infection. Consuming fermented foods regularly may help to prevent illness. Fermented milk products ( yogurt, kefir) containing lactic-acid bacteria were associated with a lower risk of allergies. (More evidence.) Kimchi is beneficial against food-borne illness. Kombucha may repair damage caused by environmental irritants and help kidney function.
Ginger may be helpful with respiratory infections, and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, including inhibiting the TNF-alpha cytokine. Fresh ginger (but not dried) was also shown to be beneficial in preventing/helping RSV.
Very early research shows that pomegranate juice may be effective against flu, stomach flu (norovirus), and other infections. Pomegranate, actually, has also been shown to possibly prevent and even cure cancer of the breast, prostate, and colon.
Cod liver oil is especially beneficial. It contains vitamins A and D, which have benefits in immune function. It may also protect against or slow the development of heart disease. It has anti-inflammatory properties as well. It may decrease the risk of respiratory illness (more evidence). It also affects the fat-soluble vitamin content of breastmilk. It may play a protective role against cancer death, and help rheumatoid arthritis. It may reduce the risk of type I diabetes (other vitamin D supplements didn’t show the same effect), also reduces risk when pregnant women take it (other vitamin D and multivitamin supplements didn’t show the same effect). It’s beneficial for eye health and may decrease the risk of glaucoma and associated blindness.
The Bottom Line
Treat elderberry as the medication that it is, rather than “just a food.” Consider using additional natural remedies or using some of the other remedies in its place, depending on your circumstances.
Yes, I had way too much fun doing all that research. It took about 4 hours to do it all, but I feel like I’ve learned so much (you can read all the studies I did by clicking the links throughout the text). I hope to bring you all more posts in the next few weeks based on all I have learned from writing this one!
(You can buy elderberries here.)