Fending Off the Common Cold with Black Elderberry

By Dr. Kevin Curran

We all know there’s no cure for the common cold. But the question remains…is there a natural way to treat the symptoms of a cold. Plant-based, natural remedies for cold or flu infections are popular because they tend to be less invasive and yield fewer side effects than pharmaceutical drugs. Black elderberry is one of these popular natural therapies. However, just because a remedy is popular, that doesn’t always mean it’s an effective approach. In this article, we explore the biology behind the proposed health benefits of black elderberry.

What is black elderberry?

Black elderberry is a shrubby tree native to the temperate regions of Europe. Black elderberry, or Sambucus nigra, has become widely used as a medicinal plant. This deciduous tree grows up to 30 feet in height and produces clusters of small, white flowers. These flowers generate green berries, which turn black at the end of summer.

The use of elderberry by humans is not a new concept. Archaeologists discovered that early humans buried their dead with elderberry branches. In North America, early settlers have been using black elderberry for the past 10,000 years. Native Americans ate the berries for food but they were also aware of the healing properties of the plant. They consumed the berries, leaves and flowers as a means to defend against rheumatism and viral infections.

Lately there’s been a resurgence in interest the health benefits of this medicinal plant. Fortunately this resurgence of interest has been accompanied by quality clinical and laboratory studies. These studies explore the capacity for black elderberry to strengthen our immune system and, thereby, minimize the negative effects of a cold or flu.

Below, we’ll explore some of this published work and, in doing so, we will explain how elderberries can help us stay healthy.

Black Elderberry for Fighting Colds : Chinese Medicine Living

Clinical tests probe the ability of black elderberry to treat colds or flu infections.

There are two notable clinical studies that both demonstrate the ability of black elderberry to reduce the symptoms associated with a cold or flu (Zakay-Rones, 1995; Zakay-Rones, 2004). One of these clinical trials, performed in Norway, tested 60 patients of varying ages. All of these test subjects had just begun to feel the effect of a flu (extreme fatigue, high fever, aching body, congestion). These recently ill patients were given 15 mls. of black elderberry syrup for a duration of 5 days. A similar control group was given a placebo treatment. The scientists found that patients who received elderberry treatment became healthy approximately 4 days earlier then the control group. The authors conclude black elderberry treatment is an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza.

In summary, these clinical trials demonstrate the capacity for black elderberry to reduce the time duration of a flu.

How does black elderberry strengthen our immune system?

The primary job of our immune system is to attack and kill invading pathogens. In regards to a cold or flu, these invading pathogens tend to be either a bacteria or a virus. When our bodies fight a sickness - our immune system shifts into battle mode. Specialized immune cells are sent out to destroy the pathogens that have caused our sickness. Laboratory studies have explored the benefits of black elderberry syrup for colds. These studies have concluded that black elderberry strengthens our body by regulating our cytokine levels and by delivering antioxidants. We will explain all this biology below.

Anti-oxidants prevent cellular damage

First of all… what are anti-oxidants? Anti-oxidants are small molecules that defend our cells from free radicals. Free radicals are small, charged molecules that can bang around the inside of our body and cause inflammation and cellular damage. This is why you want to eat foods that are full of anti-oxidants.

Plants are a rich source of antioxidants. Turmeric, for example, the tropical plant used as a curry spice, is enriched with a powerful antioxidant called curcumin. Curcumin is a potent bio-active compound that fights free radicals. This antioxidant capacity makes turmeric a natural remedy for inflammation related health issues, such as arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Black elderberry is another plant that is enriched with antioxidants. In particular, black elderberries contain molecules called flavonoids. Flavonoids are a class of antioxidants often found in leafy plants and dark colored fruits. Multiple studies demonstrate that flavonoids in black elderberries protect cells from oxidative stress. In these experiments, living cells are exposed to damaging, oxidizing free radicals such as hydrogen peroxide, AAPH and α-tocopheroxyl. The authors then present data showing that the presence of flavonoids protects these cells from this free radical damage (Abuja 1998).

In summary, taking black elderberry delivers antioxidant flavonoids to our body. These flavonoids help protect our body from the damaging effect of free radicals.

Black elderberry controls our cytokine levels

Cytokines are small molecules that are incredibly important for our immune system. These small molecules move throughout our body and act as chemical messengers. Cytokines send signals that tell our body to either increase or decrease the intensity of an immune response. When cytokine signaling is functioning properly, our body will only mount an aggressive immune response when necessary. In contrast, if there is no threat to our body, then we want our cytokines to tell our immune system to take the foot off the gas. If our immune system is overactive, our body will experience chronic inflammation and tissue damage. We need our cytokines to help us mount an appropriate response to an infection.

Multiple laboratory studies reveal that a treatment of black elderberry can increase and regulate the cytokine levels in our immune system (Middleton, 1992). One especially convincing report by Barak et al., demonstrates that black elderberry extract activates a series of cytokines that are critical to our immune system (IL-6, IL-1 and TNF-α).

In summary, taking black elderberry when we’re sick can modulate our cytokine levels. Properly regulated cytokine levels leads to an appropriate immune system response.

When taken together, the clinical and laboratory studies discussed in this article certainly suggest that using black elderberry is a reasonable course of action. Our body is bolstered by the cytokines and antioxidants derived from the black elderberry tree. So, next time you feel a cold or flu sneaking into your body, consider lending your body a hand with this medicinal plant.

Black Elderberry for Fighting Colds : Chinese Medicine Living

Citations:

Abuja, Peter M., Michael Murkovic, and Werner Pfannhauser. “Antioxidant and prooxidant activities of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) extract in low-density lipoprotein oxidation.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 46.10 (1998): 4091-4096.

Barak, Vivian, Tal Halperin, and Inna Kalickman. “The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines.” Eur Cytokine Netw 12.2 (2001): 290-296.

Middleton, Elliott, and Chithan Kandaswami. “Effects of flavonoids on immune and inflammatory cell functions.” Biochemical pharmacology 43.6 (1992): 1167-1179.

Zakay-Rones, Zichria, et al. “Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 1.4 (1995): 361-369.

Zakay-Rones, Z., et al. “Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.” Journal of International Medical Research 32.2 (2004): 132-140.

Image Credits

Featured image - www.tophealthremedies
Black Elderberry closeup - www.gartenjournal.net
Black Elderberry Bush - science.halleyhosting.com

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What is Gua Sha?

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

Gua Sha is a medical treatment used in Chinese medicine and throughout South East Asia. In Indonesia the technique is called Kerik, in Vietnam: Cao Yio and in Laos: Khoud Lam.

“Gua” means to scrape or rub. “Sha” is the term for the reddish raised skin rash that occurs as a result of the scraping. Sha refers to the blood stagnation in the subcutaneous tissues before and after it is raised as the reddish skin rash (petechiae) or bruising (ecchymosis).

Gua Sha involves lubricating the skin with oil (traditionally a thick oil such as peanut was used) and using a smooth edged instrument, the acupuncturist uses long or short strokes causing redness or bruising. The most common areas for treatment are the yang areas of the body such as the back, neck, shoulders, buttocks, limbs. Occasionally the chest and abdomen are used as well. There are also types of facial Gua Sha that are used in conjunction with cosmetic acupuncture treatments to help increase circulation, elasticity and firmness of the skin.

Gua Sha does however cause temporary ecchymosis (or bruising) which fades in 2-4 days. In TCM theory, the intensity/severity of the bruising is an indication of the severity of the toxicity, stagnation or fever inside the body.

What Does Gua Sha Treat?

Gua Sha is used to treat as well as prevent the common cold, flu, bronchitis, asthma, and pain both acute and chronic. It is also used to detoxify the body, and alleviates fevers as the scraping brings the excess heat and toxins to the surface of the body to be released.

When used for pain there may be an achy feeling, tenderness or knotted feeling in the muscles. It is excellent for treating colds or flus especially if there are respiratory problems or high fever. Any problems of qi or blood stagnation can be successfully treated with Gua Sha.

Gua Sha has a special function to relieve fevers and inflammation of the respiratory system, and performs very well in conjunction with acupuncture and cupping for these conditions.

What Does The “Sha” Tell You?

The colour and intensity of the Sha is both diagnostic and prognostic. If the Sha is very light in colour it indicates a deficiency of blood. If the Sha is a fresh and intense red, it means the condition is acute and has not yet penetrated deep into the body. If the Sha is black or purple in colour it indicates blood stagnation which means the condition has been long standing. If the Sha is brown, there may be dryness in the body and a deficiency of fluids. Dark deep red Sha indicates heat. The Sha is a good reflection of detoxification and fever release.

What Tools Do You Use for Gua Sha?

There are many things that can be used to do Gua Sha. Traditionally, a slice of water buffalo horn, a piece of jade, a Chinese soup spoon, or a coin were used. You can basically use anything with a rounded edge. Now there are many tools of various sizes and shapes that are used for Gua Sha. Below is a photo of some common Gua Sha tools.

It is also important to lubricate the skin before administering the Gus Sha. Various massage oils can be used. You can also use peanut oil, almond oil, coconut oil or vicks vaporub as a lubricant.

How is Gua Sha Applied?

The area of skin to be treated is applied with oil as a lubricating medium. The acupuncturist then takes the Gua Sha tool and strokes the skin in a downward motion until the petechia form. If there is no blood stasis, stagnation or fever, a rash (petechiae) will not form and the skin will only turn pink.

Gua Sha is stimulating to the immune system, detoxifies, increases circulation, regulates organ function, normalizes metabolic processes, removes stagnation and eases pain. After a Gua Sha treatment, a patient usually feels a shift or release especially if there was pain. There is often sweating which is the body’s way of releasing toxins that have been inside the body. Gua Sha revitalizes, rejuvenates, helps diminish stress, fatigue and severe exhaustion. It helps to release emotions, relaxes the body and helps to clear the mind and senses. Gua Sha is a simple treatment, but incredibly effective for many ailments which is why it has been used in China and South East Asia for thousands of years.