Does Elderberry Syrup Really Work?
A favorite herbal remedy
For years I have made a big batch of Elderberry Syrup every winter for the kids in my life. My son and two nieces love drinking it with warm water for "Elderberry Tea" and even better, mixing it with sparkling water for a home-made soda. I first learned about elderberries, Sambucus nigra, the year I did an herbal apprenticship with Rosemary Gladstar at her retreat center, Sage Mountain Herbals, in East Barre, Vermont.
Elderberry is a favorite European remedy and according to Gladstar is useful in treating the flu, colds and coughs. Folk wisdom has it that Sambucus will help to bring down a fever because of it's diaphoretic properies; it induces sweating. The herb is said to be high in vitamin C and bioflavanoids and many regard it as an "immune enhancer", especially when combined with Echinachea.
In her book, Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal, A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health and Vitality, the author shares her recipe for elderberry syrup. I have altered it a little, adding ginger to enhance it's flavor and spice it up a bit.
- 1 Cup fresh or 1/2 Cup dried elderberries
- 3 Cups water
- 1 inch long knob of ginger root, grated
- 1 Cup honey
Mix the berries and water in a medium saucepan and simmer, covered, for about an hour. Smash the berries and drain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer and cheesecloth, sqeezing the cloth to extract all the juice. Stir in the honey. Squeeze the grated ginger to extract it's juices into the mixture. Pour into a mason jar and refridgerate for up to three months.
Caution, never eat uncooked elderberries and always avoid red or green berries to prevent nausea.
David Hoffmann, an herbalist and author of The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal, calls elder a "virtual medicine chest". Hoffman is particularly fond of the flowers and suggests using them to treat respiratory congestion, hayfever and sinusitis. According to his research elder flowers are high in the flavonoids rutin, isoquercitrine and kampherol and the berries are high in vitamin C.
Questions about efficacy?
While we all enjoyed the taste of Elderberry Syrup and it felt good emotionally to be making a home remedy I couldn't really be sure the product was working. Sometimes my son would get a cold that would linger, or a fever that would last for days. I had some questions about the folk remedy. Was it best taken as a preventive, or was it more effective in the acute stages of illness? How much and how often should I be giving the syrup? Since I was investing a fair bit of time and money every year making Elderberry Syrup I decided to dig a littler deeper into the scientific research to find out if I was a) making it correctly; b) administering a proper dose; c) giving it at the proper stage of illness.
What does the science say?
There are numerous ways to find scientific, scholarly research articles on the web. Reading either the abstract or the full study is a good way to find out if an herbal remedy or supplement really works, how it works and how best to use it.
Google Scholar, which can be found under the "More" pulldown menu is a great way to access research. The homepage for the National Council of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, www.nccam.nih.gov is also a good place to look for critical evaluations of herbal products. The website for the American Botanical Council, http://cms.herbalgram.org is another great place to look for botanical science. However, depending on the herb, there is not always a lot of research being done to back up or debunk an herbs efficacy.
I was able to find scientific evidence to support my affection for elderberries. According to the NCCAM website, elderberries are a possible treatment for pain, swelling, cough, fever, flu and sinus infection. Furthermore, a 2009 article posted on HerbalGram, entitled Elderberry Extract for Treating Influenza, first published in Online Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacokinetis reviewed a study done in China using a proprietary blend of elderberry extract. The study gave positive scientific evidence to support that elderberry was effective in reducing participants' fever, headaches and congestion. Patients taking the elderberry syrup recovered from the flu more quickly than patients taking a placebo. Fever and headache improved within 24 hours, and coughs improved within 48 hours. The dosages were fairly high and frequent, 175 mg. four times a day and treatment was started within the first 24 hours of symptom onset.
Knowledge is Power
Now that I had done the homework, I was more prepared for this cold and flu season. I knew that Elderberry Syrup was a helpful home remedy. I knew it had to be administered within the first day of infection and that frequency and dosage amounts were important in order to feel the positive effects. There was no research to support Elderberry Syrup as a preventative measure to ward off colds or flu, so I could save my syrup for when we were really sick and rely on healthy diet, plenty of sleep, movement and laughter as preventive medicines.
Sure enough, when my nine year old son came down with flu like symptoms one week before school started, I knew we could nip this in the bud! I gave him 2 oz of Elderberry Syrup four times a day for about two days and he felt better in no time. Of course, he slept a lot, ate soup and received lots of love, too.
Please consult your doctor before using elderberry syrup and always consult a physician before using any herbal supplements. This article is not intended to treat, or diagnose any illness or medical condition.