Does this ancient cold and flu remedy really work?

Herbal remedies have been around for centuries, and elderberries and elderberry syrup have long been used to boost the immune system and fight colds, flu, fever, burns, cuts and a variety of other ailments.

The ancient “father of medicine” himself, Hippocrates, called the elderberry his “medicine chest” for use on a wide variety of ailments.

There’s been renewed interest in elderberry syrup as holistic medicine, also known as integrative medicine, becomes more accepted in health care. Integrative medicine takes account of all the factors that impact a person’s health, including all aspects of lifestyle.

There are studies that have shown that elderberry syrup is effective in shortening cold and flu symptoms – one study shows that taking elderberry every four hours for several days can cut flu-like symptoms in half.

But there are some important things to consider before you add elderberry syrup to your health and wellness regimen.

First, it is NOT a replacement for a flu shot.

“I think that elderberry has its role, but the flu shot is the only thing that will prevent influenza,” said Dr. Sarah Pierce, medical director of integrative medicine for Aurora Health Care.

Second, if you don’t know how to properly prepare the syrup, homemade elderberry syrup can be very dangerous.

“Certain parts of the plant, the leaves and stems, can actually have a cyanide-like effect,” Dr. Pierce said. “It’s very important that you’re actually using just the fruit.”

There are many different types of elderberry plants, but it’s flowers and berries of Sambucus nigra, commonly known as European elder, that are the most studied. But it can be easily confused for pokeweed, which is a poisonous plant.

“You have to be able to confidently identify elderberries,” Pierce said. Otherwise, there are other sources for elderberry syrup.

When buying elderberry syrup or extract online or in a local store, it’s important to buy a quality product.

When reading product information, look for the following information:

  • Common name and botanical name of the active ingredient.
  • Which parts of the plant was used.
  • Whether a whole herb or extract was used.
  • Manufacturer’s name and contact information.
  • Lot number.
  • Expiration date that has not passed.

For most people, it likely wouldn’t hurt and may help to include elderberry as part of a healthy diet during cold and flu season, along with foods high in vitamin C, vitamin B6 and vitamin D, to support the immune system.

As always, talk to your doctor before adding new supplements to your diet.

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