Elder Statesman

The venerable elderberry has been successfully fighting flu for centuries.

Elder Statesman
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WITH FLU SEASON upon us, a blast from the past is your best bet to face the future. Elder usually refers to two berry-producing plants from the honeysuckle family: Sambucus canadensis, an American shrub, and S. nigra, a small European tree that's been naturalized to the United States. As early as 400 B.C., Hippocrates called elder his "medicine chest," and the Greeks and Romans used its flowers to treat many maladies, from arthritis to asthma. The dark-purple berries generally ended up in preserves and wine--that is, until the Middle Ages, when European herbalists began using elderberry to treat flu and other infections, a course also followed by Native American healers. But it was only a few years ago that scientific evidence emerged to validate their experiences.

Natural immune boost In the early 1990s, scientists at Hadassah University Medical School in Jerusalem used the berries—-processed into syrup—to treat a flu outbreak on an Israeli kibbutz. Those who did not receive the remedy took an average of six days to recover. But 90 percent of those taking elder recovered in just three days, according to a report published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The preparation was subsequently trademarked and is now sold at health food stores and some pharmacies under the name Sambucol (distributed in North America by Nature's Way). During the 1999-2000 flu season, the same researchers journeyed north and gave 60 Norwegian influenza sufferers either a placebo or the herb syrup (2 teaspoons four times a day for five days). Writing in the Journal of International Medical Research, they noted that the Sambucol group recovered four days faster. According to the Israel Medical Association Journal, elderberry increases production of a class of immune compounds called cytokines, which may explain its heightened ability to fend off the flu.

Versatile profile Once flu season is over, you may want to keep elder on hand. Like other dark-colored fruits, it contains powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins. A Tufts University study published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine suggested that elderberry could help prevent cardiovascular disease. It may also combat gum disease. Researchers at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center incubated infection-fighting white blood cells and gum-disease bacteria with and without elderberry extract. The results, published in the Journal of Periodontology, found that white blood cells exposed to the herb "potently inhibited" the bacteria.

Daily dose For general health, the recommended adult dose of Sambucol is 2 teaspoons a day. For the treatment of flu symptoms—fever, aches, malaise—adults should take 2 teaspoons four times a day. No significant side effects have been reported from elder preparations, but ingesting unripe berries may produce nausea. In addition, never consume elder leaves or stems, which contain cyanide.


Elderberry image via Shutterstock