While getting a cold may not seem like the biggest ailment to deal with this winter (after all, it’s better than the flu), dealing with one can be a real drag on your mood, productivity and overall well-being. Plus, the average adult gets two to three colds a year (and children even more than that), making them a recurring issue you need to address.
The nuisance of a cold is often what leads people to be constantly on the hunt for fast, natural ways to boost their immunity and prevent coming down with the sniffles in the first place. There have been zinc and vitamin C supplements, like Airborne and Zicam. And lately the go-to source seems to be elderberry, a plant that has been praised as a safe and effective way to boost your immune system.
But what really is the deal with elderberry supplements and do they actually work? Here’s what experts want you to know:
You may have just heard of it, but elderberry has been used for centuries
“Elderberry is a mostly European tree whose white flowers and very dark berries have been part of folk remedies since ancient Egyptian times,” explained Steven Gundry, medical director of The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine in Palm Springs, California, and author of “The Longevity Paradox.” “It has a long history in being used to lessen the length of colds and flu, shortening the duration by about two days. The exact mechanism of action has not actually been proven, but the anthocyanins and other potent polyphenols are thought to stimulate the immune system.”
Research published in the European Cytokine Network about the effectiveness of elderberry found it may even help shorten the shelf life of the flu. Elderberry reduced symptoms by three to four days in 10 different flu strains by increasing inflammatory cytokine production, which is a group of proteins that help regulate and communicate with your immune system.
Elderberry comes in many forms
You’ll see it on shelves as supplements, syrup and even gummies, but as long as you’re purchasing it from a reliable source (like a drugstore or pharmacy) it doesn’t really matter which one you choose. Just make sure the first ingredient is elderberry extract to ensure you’re getting as pure of a product as possible.
It has minimal side effects for some people
The lack of side effects is especially crucial when it comes to treating children who may have the flu, said Joy Weydert, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Integrative Medicine and a pediatrician in the Kansas City area.
“So much of the standard, over-the-counter medicines have been discouraged for use in children because of the side effects they were having on them,” Weydert said.
Prescription options like Tamiflu may work well for adults, but not all children have positive interactions on the antiviral medication. Some children could experience psychiatric side effects from the medication, according to Weydert.
Enter elderberry, which Weydert said can produce the same mechanism Tamiflu does by blocking a certain chemical enzyme to prevent the virus from entering cells and replicating in the body but without possible unpleasant side effects.
Elderberry won’t work overnight
Unlike Tamiflu (which typically consists of two doses, five times a day, within the first 48 hours of flu symptoms), you can’t just pop an elderberry supplement when you start to feel sick and expect your symptoms to quickly subside.
Weydert said it’s best to start taking elderberry as a preventive measure before you get sick, and then increase the dosage if you start to feel ill. How much elderberry you take will depend on what form you’re taking, such as syrup or a supplement, so make sure to read the label for exact dose amounts.
But buyer beware: One thing to check if you decide to go with liquid elderberry is its sugar content.
“Many commercial preparations of [elderberry] syrup contain large amounts of sugar, which by itself can suppress the immune system,” Gundry said.
The same can be said for elderberry gummies when it comes to sugar content. Plus, you may have to eat more than one to get an equal amount of elderberry that’s in one dose of syrup or a supplement, so keep that in mind if you’re watching your sugar intake.
Elderberry may not be an effective cold and flu solution for everyone
Though there has been some research around the use of elderberry efficacy in instances of cold and flu, these studies are relatively small in size. More research needs to be done with larger populations to make any definitive conclusions.
“The chances of elderberry being safe is probably pretty good but there’s no good evidence that shows taking elderberry will work 100% for everyone across the board,” said Alex McDonald, a family physician based in San Bernardino, California.
And while elderberry may not have any side effects in healthy individuals, it can interact with certain medications for blood pressure, chemotherapy and other chronic conditions. McDonald stresses that you need to tell your family physician you’re taking elderberry so they can make sure it’s a safe option for you.
As for what kind of elderberry to take ― supplement versus syrup ― that’s up to you, but McDonald said your best bet is to pick a product and stick with it, as some people may absorb different forms of elderberry more easily than others.
Most importantly, don’t forget that elderberry doesn’t take the place of other cold and flu precautions. In addition to getting your flu shot, McDonald said to make sure you practice healthy habits. This means focusing on a balanced diet, getting enough sleep at night and exercising regularly to help keep your immune system strong.