Teerawong “Kan” Kasiolarn, ND, LAc, MSAc, Dipl.Ac, (NCCAOM®), is a naturopathic doctor certified through the Naturopathic Licensing and Examination Board. He has additional certifications in acupuncture and integrative family medicine.

We’re deep into flu season, and chances are you’re eager to find ways to avoid getting sick — or at the very least, to get over your cough, sore throat and fever as quickly as possible.

There are many folk remedies that claim to ward off illness. One increasingly popular remedy on that list: elderberry, a plant used in teas and syrups to fight colds and flu. Can elderberry syrup really help you stay healthy?

Elderberry Syrup: An Age-Old Medicine

Elderberry is the fruit of the European elder tree (Sambucus nigra), also known as elder flower. The flowers are often used in teas. The extract made from elderberries, known as sambucol, is commonly made into syrups and capsules.

Elderberry has been used as a natural medicine to treat colds, influenza and sinusitis for hundreds of years. But, don’t just take your great-great-grandmother’s word for it. Modern research suggests it really works.

In one study published in the Journal of International Medical Research, researchers tested elderberry extract in people with flu. Half of the patients took elderberry syrup daily for 5 days, while the rest took a placebo. On average, the patients in the elderberry group felt better after 3 to 4 days. For those in the placebo group, flu symptoms dragged on for an average of 7 or 8 days.

Other studies suggest elderberry can fight other viruses, too, including colds and outbreaks of the herpes virus. Besides its antiviral properties, elderberry seems to be a powerful antioxidant. (Antioxidants are substances that protect the body’s cells from damage.)

Elderberry for Colds and Flu

It’s too soon to declare elderberry a proven cure for colds and flu. Most studies of this extract have been small, and more research is needed to fully understand the effects of this purple berry. And although elderberry fruit and flowers appear to be quite safe, they haven’t been tested in pregnant women. If you’re expecting, it’s a good idea to avoid untested supplements, including elderberry.

Still, many people say this natural remedy lives up to its reputation. Want to give it a try? Several types of elderberry syrups and tablets are available in pharmacies. It’s a good idea to stick with reputable commercial brands, and to follow the suggested doses on the packages.

When treating illnesses, people often look to pharmaceuticals first. They may overlook plant-based medicines, such as elderberry. But herbal medicines can be effective for treating a variety of problems, alone and combined with other treatments. That’s why herbal medicine is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine.

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