It’s that time of year again—cold season. Though there are no known cures for the common cold, take a quick stroll through your local pharmacy and you're sure to find a wide assortment of decongestants and supplements to restore you to good health. Cold medications treat symptoms like coughing and stuffed-up sinuses, whereas supplements (Airborne, zinc, vitamin C, and echinacea, for example) claim to help fight the cold itself so you can recover faster or avoid getting sick in the first place. One lesser-known cold remedy, Elderberry, has been growing in popularity as both a natural cold treatment and subject of scientific studies—here's what it is, and how to embrace it this winter.
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What is Elderberry?
Elderberry is a fruit that grows wild throughout the world. It looks a little bit like a very dark blueberry and grows in bunches like grapes. Elderberries are toxic if eaten raw, but have been part of plant-based healing regimens for centuries.
Can Elderberry Help with a Cold?
Through possible antiviral properties, the claim of elderberry extract is that it can both shorten the duration of a cold and decrease a cold's severity.
Where to Buy Elderberry Extract
Elderberry extract is available over the counter in many forms—gummies, capsules, and liquids mostly—at drugstores and supermarkets, or online from e-retailers. Elderberry extract is officially a dietary supplement, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have to prove elderberry supplements are safe or that manufacturer claims are scientifically proven. That also means the supplements cannot state they shorten or reduce the severity of colds on its packaging. Instead, you’ll see language like “supports immune health.”
There are hundreds of viruses that can cause a common cold, and at least as many differences in lifestyle and physical health between each sniffly-nosed cold sufferer. With all these variables, there's no definitive conclusion on elderberry effectiveness despite several promising scientific experiments.
Many experiments have indicated a beneficial effect from elderberry on those with colds. A study of cold-sufferers on airplanes found a “significant reduction of cold duration and severity” when elderberry extract was taken in 300 mg capsules. A 2004 study found that those who took elderberry extract as 15 mL of liquid, recovered from their colds about four days faster than those who took a placebo.
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A systematic review of the studies that are out there—this is when other scientists study previously published research to look for flaws—found that the evidence was not conclusive for elderberry’s effect on cardiovascular disease and bronchitis. But when talking about elderberry and colds, the review found statistically significant evidence to believe that elderberry actually does work. Not a ton of evidence, but some.
A newer study, from earlier this year, was the first to determine, at least in part, how elderberry works in the body. That study found that compounds inside elderberry function as an antiviral medication, fighting to stop the cold virus from replicating and surviving inside your body. Elderberry also seems to trigger the immune system to fight infection more efficiently.
How to Take Elderberry
Because elderberry extract is a supplement, there are no standard dosing amounts. Studies use different amounts, including a 15mL serving of a liquid or a 300mg capsule. The package of elderberry extract you buy will have dosing suggestions, and those are as good a suggestion as any.
Elderberry extract doesn’t seem to have many negative side effects (Remember: Never eat raw elderberries. They’re very toxic!). But it does have dangerous interactions with some medications, especially immunosuppressant drugs. There’s a partial list of drug interactions here, but if you’re taking any regular prescriptions, check with your doctor before taking elderberry.
Those at a greater health risk, especially pregnant women and children, should probably not take elderberry. There's no evidence that it’s unsafe, but, according to a 2014 study, there is not sufficient evidence that it's safe, so don't risk it.
Can I Make Elderberry Extract Myself?
It's safer to leave it to the supplement manufacturers. Elderberries grow abundantly, and making syrup from them is like making syrup from any other berry. If you're safely cooking elderberries for syrup to add to a stack of pancakes or ice cream, you'll likely be fine, but if you're looking for stronger medicinal properties, purchased supplements is a safer bet. It can be tricky to identify the right species of elderberry and bringing raw elderberries into your home is a risk in itself. A product like Sambucol (a common elderberry supplement) has many resources to put into making sure the product is safe and consistent, and your home kitchen doesn't have those same protocols. Making elderberry syrup for food is fun; for medicine, you might want to outsource it.
If you're already doing your best to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest, adding elderberry extract to your daily routine this cold season may just be the little extra boost you need to stay healthy.