Every winter, dodging a cold and the flu can be a chore. After all, huddling indoors with folks who are coughing, sneezing and wheezing is essentially like swimming in a petri dish of germs. One way people are trying to stay afloat: elderberry. A growing number of consumers are hitting the health food store for elderberry products to reduce their risk of picking up a cold or the flu.
Elderberry seems to be the new hot ingredient in cold and flu remedies. Store shelves are increasingly stocked with elderberry lozenges, sprays, gummies and pills. Recipes for homemade elderberry syrup are trending on social media. But do they work? And are they safe? We asked Henry Ford nurse practitioner Ashley Houghteling to answer commonly asked questions about elderberry as a cold- and flu-buster.
Q: What is elderberry?
A: The elderberry plant is native to Europe, though it also grows in other parts of the world. It’s been used in folk medicine for centuries to treat cold and flu viruses. There are a slew of different elderberry plants, but the flowers and berries from one in particular – Sambucus nigra, or European elder – are the most studied. Elderberry extract, the form often seen in cold and flu remedies, relies on a combination of alcohol, or other chemicals to draw out the beneficial parts of the plant. This results in a more concentrated product.
Q: Does elderberry really work?
A: It’s not clear. Proponents believe elderberry-based teas, lozenges and supplements provide needed antioxidants that boost the body’s natural immune response. A few studies suggest that elderberry may help reduce the duration and severity of cold and flu.
Dating back to 2004, a study of 60 adults published in The Journal of Internal Medicine Research reported that people who sipped 15 mL of elderberry syrup four times daily for five days shortened the duration of their illness by four days compared to those who took a placebo syrup.
A 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients found that air travelers who dosed themselves with elderberry syrup had a shorter and less intense illness compared to those who didn’t.
Bottom line: These studies are small, and there’s no evidence to suggest that elderberry prevents a cold or flu from taking hold. More research is needed to determine whether it’s a safe and effective remedy for – or defense against – cold and flu viruses.
Q: What should I look for on labels?
A: Pay attention to ingredient lists to see what manufacturers are adding to the supplement. In most cases, these products (especially elderberry gummies, syrups and lozenges) contain a lot of additives.
Q: Is there anyone who should NOT try elderberry?
A: There are some potential side effects of elderberry, so talk to your health care provider first to make sure they’re okay for you. This is especially important if you’re pregnant or lactating. Elderberry can increase the effects of diuretics or diabetes medications. It can also support or boost the immune system. While that’s usually a good thing, if you have an overactive immune system, an autoimmune disorder or you’re taking medications to suppress your immune system, elderberry could pose a problem.
Q: How do I know I’m really getting elderberry?
A: You don’t. Unlike prescription and over-the-counter medications, supplements are not regulated. That said, a few watchdog organizations, such as U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com and NSF International offer seals of approval to products that meet certain criteria and contain the ingredients listed on the label.
Proven Stay-Well Strategies
While preliminary research suggests elderberry may be a promising cold and flu remedy, it’s not a surefire strategy for sidestepping sickness. Instead, your best defense against cold and flu are these four dependable strategies:
- Get a flu shot.
- Wash your hands.
- Stay hydrated.
- Avoid sick people.
“Most important, know the signs that require immediate attention,” Houghteling says. “If you’re having difficulty breathing, chest pain or trouble keeping liquids down because of a cold or flu, reach out to your health care provider immediately or visit the emergency room.”
To find a doctor or primary care provider at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Ashley Houghteling is a nurse practitioner in internal medicine. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Bloomfield Township.