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The elderberry effect: The mighty berry fighting flu, calming colds and igniting immunity

July 2019 Print
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Should you ‘feed a cold and starve a fever’ as the old saying goes? We all have the potential to suffer from various forms of colds, flu and respiratory illness, especially when the weather turns. As Australia enters into one of the worst predicted flu seasons, there’s a humble berry that’s small in stature but mighty in merit that may go some way towards flighting flu, calming colds and igniting your immune system – discover the elderberry effect.

Cold viruses are the most common infectious diseases that human can contract[1]
Caused by hundreds of different viruses[2], the common cold is the most prevalent contagious disease in Australia[3] leading to significant economic costs in lost attendance at work and school.[4] Proper ‘influenza’ is a viral infection affecting your nose, throat and sometimes your lungs[5] and estimated to contribute to over 3,000 deaths in Australia each year[6]. After a quieter 2018, experts predict that average will rise to about 4,000 people in 2019 dying from complications due to influenza as the number of infections increase[7].

While many of us refer to ‘having a touch of the flu’ when struck down with the malaise of a cold, it’s just the runny nose, sneezing and cough or sore throat that are the similar symptoms.[8] You’ll know you likely have the flu when you’re also afflicted with fever and chills, head and body aches, and vomiting and diarrhoea – the latter two more commonly in children.[9]

While mild flu can improve on its own without any treatment, serious cases require hospitalisation – and both conditions can lead to complications like pneumonia.[10] Influenza vaccination is the best protection; however, strains constantly change so a yearly booster is advised. Antibiotics are not helpful for either flu or colds as they’re only designed to treat bacterial infections.[11]

Elderberry, zinc and vitamin C may help reduce the severity of colds and flu
Viruses like influenza carry specific proteins, which elderberry fruit has the ability to neutralise[12] thanks to their power punch of vitamin A, potassium, vitamin C, folate, calcium and iron. You’ll also get a good dose of fibre when enjoying the fruit of elderberries.[13]

Vitamin C and zinc are also essential for your health and when you’re deficient, so too is your immune system[14] – and bingo, colds and flu are more susceptible. Deficiency of either one also leads to decreased resistance to infection, impaired growth and delayed wound healing.[15] The body has no storage system for either vitamin C or zinc, so, it’s important to look at the foods and supplements you’re consuming to ensure they’re packed with both.[16]

Elderberries can spice up your diet as well as give the flu a good kick

There’s plenty of study into the efficacy of elderberries for colds and flu. For example, a Norwegian study had people with flu-like symptoms who consumed elderberry syrup reporting that their symptoms improved four days before those who took a placebo.[17] In fact, teas and syrups made from the elderberry plant have been commonly used to fight upper respiratory infections and boost immunity for hundreds of years.[18]

There are many different kinds of elderberry plants, but the flowers and berries of Sambucus nigra (European elder) are the most studied and used in herbal formulas.[19] Elderberry is available as a supplement but consider adding to your cooking too. In particular, homemade elderberry syrup is simple and delicious. Simply cook the berries (stalks removed) in water and sugar, then strain before boiling the liquid to reduce it until it takes on a syrup-like consistency. Enjoy over yogurt or in a smoothie for flu-busting treat.[20] 

Be careful with preparing elderberries though - avoid consuming them raw as uncooked berries can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea;[21] while the seeds, leaves, and bark are toxic.[22] Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not consume any form of elderberry.[23] If you’re trying a supplement, check with your healthcare practitioner first.

It’s important to look after yourself to prevent and treat cold and flu symptoms

Netflix, a good book and plenty of sleep help but also be sure to eat the right foods and get proper nutrition – it’s fundamental to a healthy immune system. Include lots of colourful vegetables, some fruit, good quality proteins and fats. Supplementing with key vitamins, minerals and probiotics will also help boost the immune system and reduce susceptibility to infection.[24]

Don’t forget to drink plenty of water, frequently wash your hands and avoid or reduce alcohol consumption and smoking. Moderate exercise can help give your immune system a boost – just 20 minutes of exercise a day is sufficient to take advantage of the benefits.[25] And although it’s hard in this age of busyness, try and reduce stress too – chronic stress leads to immune suppression and increased susceptibility to viral infection. To maintain a strong immune system, make time every day to do something you enjoy, and practice deep breathing and mindfulness techniques.[26] And if you do succumb to a cold or flu, be kind to yourself and see your doctor if you’re concerned.

Reference available on request 

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