As the coronavirus percolates through the globe, people are growing more and more concerned about their immune health — and most importantly, whether their immune system is tenacious enough to repel the virus. Alleged immune boosters are being presented by online herbalists as essential medicines right now, necessary for keeping you free of the coronavirus. And many people, panicked, afraid and at a loss for basic health care, are willing to try just about anything to up their chances of staying healthy in these tough times. Among these alleged immune boosters is elderberry, a popular supplement used most often to treat cold and flu symptoms. What are the chances that elderberry actually works, though, and even if it does, could it help protect us from the coronavirus?
Come along as we ask (and answer) all of the important questions.
What exactly is an elderberry, anyway?
Elderberry refers to several different varieties of the sambucus tree, which is a flowering plant that produces berries in small black or blue-black bunches. Oddly enough, the raw berries, bark and leaves are known to be poisonous, containing small doses of cyanide, and can cause stomach problems, resulting in nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. However, commercial preparations and cooked berries should have no cyanide, and while there are no reported deaths as a result of consuming elderberries, there are reported illnesses after people drank the juice of fresh elderberries.
Hmm. How exactly is elderberry supposed to help my immune system?
In addition to elderberry products being excellent sources of antioxidants, as immunologist Kathleen Dass explains, “Elderberry has had studies showing improvement in cold-flu symptoms. The most commonly studied elderberry is sambucus nigra, which is also known as European Elder. In one study published by Zakay-Rones, 60 patients aged between 18 and 54 were studied for elderberry supplementation after they developed influenza-like symptoms. People who took 15mL of elderberry four times per day had their flu symptoms shortened by four days. While the study was small, the results were statistically significant.”
There have been other studies, too, with similar results, albeit in at least one case, with a conflict of interest that could have swayed the findings.
Well, if the studies support elderberry supplements, they must work, right?
If only it were that simple! Many actual doctors have recently been forced to emphasize that no substantial evidence supports elderberry and similar supplements for treating a cold, flu or the coronavirus, often pointing to the small, inconclusive nature of studies that claim otherwise — as well as, again, the conflict of interests that some of these studies have, because they were performed in tandem with supplement companies.
But it might work?
The thing is, we need some large-scale studies to confirm whether elderberry supplements really boost our immune system, and even then, we already have real, proven medications to help curb or endure many illnesses. “The most important thing to stress is that elderberry should not serve as a replacement for the flu shot,” Dass says (and while a coronavirus vaccine is still in the works, the sentiment stands). “Also, pregnant or lactating women should strictly avoid elderberry. People who take diabetes medications or diuretics should also discuss with their doctor before using elderberry, because elderberry can increase those effects. The other caution is that elderberry is a supplement, which means it won’t be standardized by the FDA.” And as we already discussed, elderberry can have some pretty nasty side effects, so getting some unregulated, untested version could end really, really badly.
Should I take it or not, then?
“I think elderberry is a great supplement,” says Dass, “but it shouldn’t be used as the only treatment for the cold and flu. And while elderberry has been thought to help with the flu, there’s some thought that it may worsen COVID-19.”