What it is
Elderberry is a member of the honeysuckle family and has been used both as food and medicine for thousands of years. The dark berries make delicious wines, jams, and pies, but their primary value isn’t culinary. When taken throughout the cold and flu season, or even at the first sign of a viral infection, elderberries have the ability to prevent and even treat a virus.

History and folk remedies
Since the time of Hippocrates, elderberries have been relied on as a remedy for colds, flu, and upper-respiratory infections. In ancient Europe, elderberry trees were planted near cottages to protect the occupants from evil influences.

What it’s used for
Today, herbalists recommend elderberry syrups and extracts for preventing and treating upper-respiratory viral infections, including coughs and bronchitis. The berries are a good source of phytonutrients and have cell-protective antioxidant properties.

When taken throughout the cold and flu season, elderberries have a unique ability to prevent and even stop a virus.

How it works
Since the 1980s, Israeli virologist Madeleine Mumcuoglu, PhD, of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem has studied the antiviral properties of elderberry. In laboratory research, she discovered compounds in elderberry that bind to spikes on the surface of virus cells, preventing them from puncturing cell membranes. The high concentrations of flavonoids in elderberry inhibit the action of neuraminidase, the enzyme that helps the flu virus attach to and penetrate new cells. Mumcuoglu tested Sambucol, the proprietary elderberry extract she helped develop, against various strains of influenza A and B in the laboratory and found the herb effective against all types of flu.

In 1993, a flu epidemic at an Israeli kibbutz provided the opportunity to test elderberry on patients. In people with full-blown flu symptoms, half of the subjects were given 4 tablespoons of standardized elderberry extract daily and the other half were given a placebo. Within 24 hours, 20 percent of the patients receiving elderberry showed a dramatic reduction in flu symptoms such as fever, cough, and muscle pain. Within 48 hours, 75 percent were greatly improved, and within 72 hours, 90 percent had completely recovered from the flu. In contrast, only 8 percent of those taking the placebo began to improve after 24 hours; the remaining 92 percent took six days to improve (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 1995, vol. 1, no. 4).

In a more recent study, 60 patients age 18 to 54 suffering from the flu were given 15 ml of elderberry syrup or a placebo four times a day for five days. Those taking elderberry recovered an average of four days earlier than those given the placebo. The researchers concluded that elderberry extract offered “an efficient, safe, and cost-effective treatment for influenza” (Journal of International Medical Research, 2004, vol. 32, no. 2).

How to take it
Many elderberry products are available at natural products stores and pharmacies. Although research studies have focused on the proprietary extract mentioned above, it’s likely that other extracts of elderberry are also effective. To prevent colds and flu, take 1/2 teaspoon of liquid extract or 1 to 2 teaspoons of elderberry syrup twice daily throughout cold and flu season. If you come down with the symptoms of a cold or flu, increase your dosage to 1 teaspoon of extract or 2 teaspoons of syrup four times a day.

Cost
One ounce of elderberry extract costs approximately $8; a 4-ounce bottle of elderberry syrup costs about $12.

Side effects
No side effects are associated with the use of commercial elderberry extracts. Fresh elderberries can cause nausea in some people (drying or cooking the berries alleviates this problem). Never eat the unripe berries, roots, leaves, or stems of elderberry; they contain cyanide, which can cause elderberry toxicity.

Herbalist Laurel Vukovic lives in Ashland, Oregon, and has published nine books, including Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).