a jar of elderberry juice next to freshly plucked elderberries

Should I Take Elderberry for COVID-19 Immune Support?

Elderberry has been used medicinally since ancient times – the Native Americans used the flowering plant as a remedy for infections, for instance, while the Egyptians used it to improve skin complexions. Today, elderberry is still one of the most widely used medicinal plants all over the world, largely due to its supposed properties that may treat cold and flu symptoms, fight off infection, and boost the immune system.

What is Elderberry?

The technical term for elderberry is sambucus nigra, but it’s also known as European elder, black elderberry, elder flower, and sambucus. The elder tree’s flowers and leaves have been known to help with pain relief, swelling, and inflammation. 

Elderberry is a very versatile plant. The flowers can be boiled to make into a syrup or tea, and the elderberry fruits can be dried, used to make elderberry juice, jams, sauces, pies, and wine. They can be eaten fresh too, although they can be quite tart. When used in these forms, elderberry is known to help with flu symptoms, infections, sciatica, headaches, toothaches, and heart and nerve pain, and it can also be used as a laxative or diuretic. 

It is important to note, however, that the plant’s leaves, stem, and raw or unripe berries all contain a toxic substance called sambunigrin that can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In large quantities, this can cause even more serious illness. Cooking will destroy the toxin.

The berries, when cooked and/or ripe enough to eat, do have a lot of nutritional value, although it varies from plant to plant. According to Healthline, elderberries contain 6-35mg of vitamin C per 100g of fruit (60 percent of the recommended daily intake) and 7g of fiber per 100g of fruit (over 25 percent of the recommended daily intake). They are also very rich in antioxidants.

a rustic bowl filled with fresh elderberries

What Do We Know About Elderberry and COVID-19?

The health benefits associated with taking elderberry are known to boost immune system functions as well. So, you would think that using the plant for medicinal purposes during the 2020 pandemic would be a smart idea, right? It’s not quite that simple. The relationship between elderberry and the common cold are evidently clear, but the relationship between COVID and elderberry? That’s a tricky one, and there are different schools of thoughts regarding the connection.

The Cleveland Clinic reports that there is no published research that provides proof that elderberry can prevent COVID-19, and that companies that claim their elderberry products can help against COVID are being dealt with by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission. 

On the other hand, internationally celebrated integrative medicine doctor Andrew Weil, MD, suggests that elderberry may be useful as a preventative measure for COVID-19. 

However, he advises to stop taking any form of elderberry at the first sign of coronavirus symptoms such as a fever, cough, or sore throat. If you have tested positive, then definitely stop. Elderberry is an immune stimulant, which is why, if taken while positive with coronavirus or with COVID-like symptoms present, it can actually cause damage to the lungs. 

Elderberry, Cytokine Storms, and Coronavirus

According to the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, “Elderberry is considered generally safe and in influenza B (cause of common cold), use of elderberry shortens the duration of symptoms. However, as a part of its immune supportive actions, elderberry increases immune cell release of tiny chemicals called cytokines. Specifically, elderberry increases the release of a cytokine called IL-1B which is a part of the inflammatory reaction to COVID-19 that can result in acute respiratory distress. For this reason, to minimize the possibility that elderberry could aggravate the inflammatory ‘cytokine storm’ associated with the more severe COVID-19 infections.”

So, what is this cytokine storm? Cytokines are important chemical messengers that send signals between our immune cells, resulting in a variety of different effects on the body. Depending on their particular function, these cytokines can cause either inflammatory responses or anti-inflammatory responses. When inflammation in the body becomes so severe that it can result in tissue damage, organ failure, and even death, that’s what we call a cytokine storm.

It sounds complicated, but the main takeaway here is that our immune response is based upon the relationship between these inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Elderberry has the ability to raise pro-inflammatory cytokines.

But not everyone agrees with the advice that Dr. Weil shares about avoiding elderberry because of its inflammatory properties. Some doctors argue that there are no reported cases or association of elderberry and cytokine storm, and that elderberry has so many other anti-inflammatory properties that it might still be worth trying. As always, there are many sides to every story, and we encourage you to consult with multiple sources when deciding if taking elderberry is right for you.

elderberries next to a glass of elderberry juice

How Else Can I Boost My Immune System?

There are plenty of other ways to maintain your health. Wash your hands and practice proper hygiene, get adequate amounts of rest and exercise, keep stress levels low, wear a mask and social distance when necessary, and visit Tunie’s to stock up on healthy and organic fruits and vegetables to keep your immune function nice and strong! We are South Florida’s everyday low-priced natural foods market, located in Coral Springs, with over 30,000 healthy items including vitamins and supplements, and a wide variety of raw, gluten-free, vegan, and all-natural products and grocery items.

Disclaimer: As we are not medical professionals, please consult with your healthcare provider about the pros and cons of using elderberry as a supplement, whether for coronavirus or any other health conditions.

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