I first became interested in herbalism as a young mother who kept a small herbal garden outside her back door. There is nothing better than fresh herbs to spice up any dish (as any good cook knows well) and baking my own bread, making homemade granola, etc., like gardening, was simply part of what I did. In retrospect, I see that cooking served as a highly creative endeavor that helped me to create some balance between the millions of mundane jobs associated with single motherhood and my need for creativity…
It seemed quite natural to begin to explore herbs for medicinal purposes. I first experimented with plants that grew wild near my house on the island on which I lived. I sensed that developing a personal relationship with the plants I was using mattered, an intuition that continues to inform my growing and preparation of herbal remedies to this day. If I don’t have the right growing conditions for an herb I need, I wild craft responsibly. Until recently I have never used store bought preparations.
When I studied with medicine folk in the Amazon thirty years after first using herbs for culinary and then medicinal purposes, I learned that each healer only used his/her own garden grown herbs and preparations differed based on the knowledge that each medicine person received directly from the plants, so perhaps the importance of having a personal reciprocal relationship with individual plants is tied to their efficacy – my sense/experience is that it is. The ways of the natural world are not well understood by most westernized people.
Tinctures are my preferred method of preparation because they are simple to make, requiring gathering the ripe fruit, plant, or root and steeping in alcohol for a minimum of 6 – 8 weeks. Today, of course, herbal preparations – creams – syrups – tinctures etc. can (or could be) be purchased almost anywhere.
Although Indigenous peoples have been using plant remedies for millennia to combat a whole range of ailments, and folk medicine has been popular amongst country people throughout the world, western medicine for the most part has dismissed herbal efficacy, an attitude that defies logic because most of our medicines originally came from plants.
With the spread of the Coronavirus increasing exponentially each day it might be time to take a look at Elderberry, an herb that I have grown in my yard and wild crafted around forest edges in Maine. I have used the berries to make a tincture for a number of years to help me reduce the chance of becoming ill with colds or the flu, and until I came to New Mexico without it and got the flu the second winter I was here I sort of took the herb for granted.
Research Director Dr. Jessie Hawkins and coauthors (Complementary Therapies in Medicine) undertook the first meta-analysis to study Elderberry because so little research has been done by the scientific community as a whole. (How much this prevailing scientific attitude has to do with the pharmaceutical companies and their outrageous pricing is an ongoing question for me).
Because the studies were varied, researchers were able to apply a random effects model to evaluate the effect of Elderberry. Calculations yielded a large mean effect; Elderberry does substantially reduce the duration of upper respiratory symptoms in colds and flu.
Additionally, the researchers learned that getting the flu vaccine didn’t significantly alter the effects of Elderberry. They also discovered that it not only reduces the symptoms of colds and flu, but that it works more effectively for flu symptoms than for cold symptoms.
Other Researchers performing in vitro studies confirm that Elderberry is active against human pathogenic bacteria as well as influenza viruses (HINI) In separate clinical trials, investigators also demonstrated that Elderberry reduced the severity and duration of cold and flu-like symptoms.
A recent study by a group of Chemical and Biomlolecular Engineering researchers from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and IT has determined exactly how Elderberry can help fight influenza.
The group performed a comprehensive examination of the mechanism by which phytochemicals from elderberries combat flu by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the viral attachment and entry into the host cells. Elderberry compounds directly inhibit the virus’s entry and replication in human cells,
The phytochemicals from the elderberry juice were shown to be effective at stopping the virus infecting the cells, however to the surprise of the researchers they were even more effective at inhibiting/blocking viral propagation at several stages of the influenza cycle when the cells had already been infected with the virus.
They also discovered that Elderberry stimulated the cells to release certain cytokines, which are chemical messengers that the immune system uses for communication between different cell types to help them coordinate a more efficient response to an invading pathogen.
Additionally, the team also found that Elderberry’s antiviral activity is attributed to its anthocyanidin compounds — phytonutrients responsible for giving the fruit its vivid purple coloring.
In another placebo-controlled, double-blind study conducted by virologist Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, 93 percent of the people taking Elderberry reported significant improvement in flu symptoms within 2 days of starting it, compared with the 6 days it took for the placebo group to see improvement.
A similar randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study performed in Norway demonstrated that Elderberry that was given to patients who reported having flu-like symptoms for less than 48 hours had similar results.
Researchers have also found that people who have taken Elderberry have higher levels of antibodies against the influenza virus, indicating that not only may Elderberry be able to treat flu symptoms it may also be able to prevent influenza infection.
Collectively, this research indicates that use of Elderberry presents us with an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections. Additionally Elderberry use is a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.
Of course, at this point, we have no way of knowing whether the deadly new Coronavirus would be inhibited by the use of Elderberry. However, the fact that it has been used as a folk remedy to treat colds/flu by Indigenous/country peoples throughout the world for millennia combined with new research and my own previous experience with this herb, suggests at the very least, Elderberry might be worth a try.
On a personal note, because I have been in New Mexico during Elderberry season I have not made a new tincture for myself for the last four years. The result is that I haven’t been using the berry as a preventative measure. I’ve been sick here a lot. Recently, I purchased a commercial tincture to use as a preventative measure. I can only hope that the Berry Lady hasn’t forgotten that I love her well.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Northern New Mexico.