Two things happen when cold weather hits. First, everyone scrambles for their coziest coats, sweaters and scarves — and then they buckle in for cold and flu season.
The average adult will have about two to three colds per year and a record-breaking 900,000 Americans were hospitalized from the flu in 2017 — which means preparation is key for getting through the winter months unscathed.
Beyond getting your flu shot, guzzling water, washing your hands frequently, and getting enough sleep, there are a few increasingly popular alternative methods for combatting cold and flu symptoms — and keeping it at bay in the first place.
High on the list you'll find elderberry, a fruit that comes from a medicinal plant and has become buzzy in recent years. The berry was dubbed “the new kid on the block” in Pinterest’s 2019 annual report about popular health and wellness trends.
According to the report, searches for recipes using elderberries were up by 685 percent — but you can also find the fruit in tons of products on the market, including eldeberry syrup, gummies, and tea.
So, can elderberry really help stave off a nasty cold? Here’s everything you need to know about the health benefits of the purple berries.
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What is an elderberry — and what are its health benefits?
Small and round like a blueberry, the elderberry is a dark purple fruit produced by the elder tree, says Whitney English, MS, RDN, a dietitian and certified personal trainer in Los Angeles. The tree is native to Europe, but widely grown throughout North America, Asia, and Northern Africa.
“Elderberries are rich in anthocyanins, phytochemicals commonly found in purple and blue fruits that may possess anti-cancer properties and can be beneficial for cardiovascular and cognitive health,” she explains. “They're also high in vitamin C, B6, and iron.”
Despite its recent surge in popularity, elderberry has been used as medicine for thousands of years. Fun fact? Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician who was known as the “father of medicine," referred to the plant as his “medicine chest."
Can elderberry help prevent — or shorten — a cold?
Some swear by elderberry as a method for preventing sickness, while others — docs included — say it’s their first line of defense when they feel something coming on.
“Elderberry is one of my go-to favorites this time of year,” says Myles Spar, M.D., chief medical officer of Vault Health. “Its anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to reduce flu-like symptoms and to reduce the duration of the flu by up to 50 percent.”
No matter the form of elderberry supplementation you choose (although Dr. Spar points out elderberry syrup has been studied the most), you’ll want to be consistent with it — he recommends setting those alarms and taking it a whopping four times per day.
“It’s not a one-time quick fix,” he says, adding that, while taking elderberry once or twice a day may have some benefits, "it won't nearly be as impactful" as loading up.
“I would take elderberry at the first sign of an upper respiratory infection — ideally within the first 24 hours — to nip anything bewing in the bud,” Dr. Spar says. Continue supplementing with elderberry until your symptoms have subsided, he says.
One study showed that participants who took a dose of elderberry syrup four times a day (and within 48 hours of feeling sick) saw a reduction in their symptoms and there's some evidence that elderberry can also be preventative. In a 2016 study published in Nutrients, travelers who took elderberry capsules ten days before flying overseas experienced an average two-day decrease in cold duration and also a noticeable reduction in cold symptoms. (Still, it’s important to note that elderberry syrup should not be considered a substitute for a flu shot.)
Since there are no side effects of taking elderberry, you may want to start taking it before you have any symptoms to “start building up your immune system," Dr. Spar says.
Where can I find elderberry supplements?
If you like to flex your DIY muscles every now and then, there are plenty of recipes that you can try at home, including elderberry syrup and elderberry gummies. (Note: Both recipes are made using dried elderberries, which are toxic when uncooked, so don’t pop those babies in while preparing.)
Luckily, you can also find elderberry supplements easily at your local pharmacy and online, in the form of syrup, lozenges, gummies, and capsules. Here, a few options with the highest Amazon reviews: