(disclaimer: This is my opinion based upon my own years of reading scientific and historical texts as well as my own experience using these plants. Do you own research and always follow your instincts.)
Wow, it seems like elderberry has really come into her own this year. Daily, my facebook feed runs articles on it and various fb friends comment on having it, needing it, can’t find it. An herb rich in history with an unbroken cycle of usage for millennia, she still has so much to offer us humans. But for many years now, I have broken ties with elder when it comes to acute viral infections. And here’s why.
- Cytokines. Not there is a plethora of information out there on cytokine storms and elderberry. Some say it’s a thing, others say no. So. Remember the swine flu scare many years ago? That was, for me, a wake up call in our I viewed immunity and the herbs that manage infection. Many health researchers dug up all manner of data on the 1918 flu pandemic and how the swine flu was showing signs of similar pathology. That is, they both had a nasty habit of revving up certain cytokines and downregulating others. Cytokines are immune cells. Some increase inflammation, which can be good when we have infections, because that’s how the tissues work to sequester infectious activity while working to bring immune cells in. Other cytokines can reduce inflammation, as in, when the acute phase of infection is over and the body needs to begin clearing our debris. Chronic infection is another instance when you want cytokines in place that do not create oodles of inflammation. And as a reference point for this inflammation, it is typically the response from the immune system that makes us feel “sick”, not the infectious organism itself, though given time and lack of immune response and infection would prove quite damaging if not fatal. If cytokine production goes rogue, we can become septic and well, that is the big fear for most any infectious situation. Another possibility that needs more research is how viruses are changing. We know that vaccinations alter our immune function, but we don’t entirely understand how. Some research touched on viruses actually changing within the vaccines themselves. This makes for a highly unpredictable virus, potentially infecting a population with altered immune function. My take on this? There is some evidence that elder can help the body regulate cytokines, in theory assuring us that the right ones are being utilized at the correct levels in the appropriate situations. However, there is also the historical note that when elder was utilized during that very cytokine-cascade (the precursor to the storm, with can be life-threatening…the cascade phase is your warning) prone flu of 1918, people were more likely to succumb to cytokine storms. Now I have never, ever, ever personally seen anything like this result from elderberry and there was a time when it was my go-to because it is so easy to get kids to take it. I admit that. But more and more, children (and adults) come to me with damaged immune systems. Allergies, asthma, even autism comes with a disruption in balanced cytokine production. And more and more, I felt uncomfortable sending parents off to purchase elder syrup, knowing there was even an inkling of risk, no matter how minute it was, that it could worsen symptoms. But more than that, I am an herbalist, the vast majority of people come to me ONLY after they are sick and don’t like their other options. By this point, I am usually staring at or hearing about an individual who is a few days into sickness. The body is weary and the last thing I feel a wearied immune system needs is more stimulation. It’s debilitating. And unnecessary given that we have other options.
2. While elder definitely possesses antiviral activity, it does so for a very limited number of viruses. In other words, it’s not broad-spectrum. There are literally hundreds of viruses that mimic the flu and if yours isn’t flu or one of the scant few that falls within elder’s domain? Well, you’re out of luck. And potentially creating the wrong immune cells for what you are facing. Which wears us out. And when we don’t recover from and illness 2-4 days sooner as the research indicates we can when we take an herb??? Well, we blame the herb. We should be blaming improper usage and unknown variables. So my solution? Antiviral herbs. Lomatium is a favorite, though it’s considered at-risk so we need to use it right and use it well, while finding other, more sustainable options. St. John’s wort has antiviral activity, in fact it’s a favorite against the herpes family of viruses, a notoriously difficult group to contain. Baikal skullcap is another worth delving into, as is the charmingly named, houttynia or “chameleon plant”. Some of these can be easily grown in a flower bed, unlike lomatium, which takes a bit more skill (that plus a long maturation period are what deterred restoration plantings and have left it at-risk of over harvesting). Ginger root, fresh and consumed in a generous amount, preferably as a hot tea with a touch of lemon, is another herb with broad-spectrum anti-viral activity. The bonus of the antiviral herb is that many of them do double-duty to relieve the potential for a cytokine cascade. They generally do not engage the immune system as herbs such as Echinacea or elderberry do, but rather prevent viral replication. In effect, they “turn off” viruses so they can no longer infect healthy cells. In my experience, this has proven more effective, both to prevent the spread of viral infection and to stop it (nearly) in its tracks. All without placing more strain on a weakened body. I often found myself frustrated when relying on elder to fend off something that we just couldn’t kick. Now, with her as prevention and antiviral herbs as treatment, we rarely have anything to kick.
What DO I use elder for? Well, I make a tincture that includes elderberries for use as a preventative. I find the syrup is excellent for sore throats and to calm relentless coughing. The berries added to teas while fighting a cold can also be helpful, as the cold doesn’t affect the body so intensely. (But that could be changing, too!) When summer arrives and we are sitting on jar upon jar of elder syrup because no one got sick (whew!), I add a bit here and there to smoothies and popsicles. It never hurts to fend off the especially dreaded summer cold, either. So I have found it a more beneficial ally in preventing viral infection than treating. Now I do believe if one begins using it AT THE VERY ONSET OF SYMPTOMS, it may shorten duration significantly. But in my experience, a day or 3 in and you will just wear yourself out.
Also, it’s important to know that one can certainly wildcraft elderberries as long as the source is clean of sprays and pollutants. But there are significant details to remember. First off, make sure the elder you are eyeballing is a safe kind. Some are toxic. Black is the safest; the red berry variety is not safe. The flowers are good medicine, especially beneficial to induce sweating to break a fever. The berries MUST BE COMPLETELY RIPE WHEN YOU PICK THEM. Elder plants produce a compound that contains cyanide. The compound is always present in stem, roots, leaves, bark, seeds and UNRIPE berries. Once ripe, however, the berries are fair game. BUT the seeds still contain this pesky compound. And that’s why we make syrup, so that the itty bitty seeds are cracked open to release their deleterious components. If you do gobble up the berries, you will likely throw-up, or wish you could. Some people get diarrhea. The body does what it does to pass this stuff through quickly, but with no harm done because no one can manage to down an obscene amount without purging it anyway! Also cool to know…it’s the cyanide component that gives elder it’s cough-reducing quality. So there ya go. Also, some people are more easily set off by this than others. There are folk out there with livers of steel who can graze on berries as they harvest. I am not one of these people.
Ok, there it is, my two cents. Respect the plant and use her well.