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


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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Why You Need Your Intuition

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

I am presently reading a book about people who healed themselves of cancer either without conventional Western medical treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, or after their doctors and oncologists had sent them home to die. It was written by a researcher, lecturer and consultant in the field of integrative oncology.

The book was given to me by my patient, who is at the moment healing from pancreatic cancer. The book was one of the main reasons that he sought out what some people call "alternative medical treatments" but what I simply call medicine. These included reiki, acupuncture, Chinese herbs and massage therapy. He was using these treatments in conjunction with chemotherapy, both to combat the side effects and build his immune system while receiving chemo, as well as to build up his body and regain health after the chemo was finished. I am happy to say that he is doing extremely well and that his tumour markers are back to normal levels.

So far the book details many of the common threads that are shared between all the people who managed to heal their cancers without conventional treatment (or after conventional treatment failed), and one of them is intuition. This was surprising to the author as intuition is not something that can be understood in scientific terms, but when she started seeing that cases of what they sometimes call "spontaneous remission" occur, she thought that someone should investigate and see if there was anything that could be learned from the many people who had had this experience.

Acupuncturist. Mug : Chinese Medicine LivingThe Acupuncture Kit : Chinese Medicine LivingChinese Herbal Medicine Cabinet - Basket : Chinese Medicine Living

I believe that many of us have lost our connection to our instincts. We have lost connections with so many things that used to be vital to our survival. The planet. Nature. The weather. Our bodies. Each other. And our intuition. Our intuition used to serve us in many ways. Our ancestors living in hunter gatherer societies (the societies we all lived in before the development of agriculture) relied on their instincts in many ways. Sensing a storm was coming and when to seek shelter, what foods were safe and which were unsafe to eat, and sensing that a predator was near were all ways our instincts kept us alive. We have insulated ourselves from our natural way of living in many ways so that the senses that evolved to serve us are now no longer being used and, like an old car that never gets driven, have fallen into disrepair. Intuition is like a muscle that you need to exercise, and many of our intuitive abilities have gotten flabby.

intuition can save your life

The Role Of Intuition In Healing

Intuition is one of nine things that the people healing themselves of cancer had in common. There were nine things that came up again and again in these cases, although, as she states, it often goes against the Western medical way of treating disease, it was one of the things that contributed to people actually getting better. Curing cancer, and that is something many Western doctors cannot believe happens without treatment, managed to happen over and over again, often without the use of chemotherapy and radiation. It seems that there are many things at work, and that perhaps we don't completely understand them all and there is always more to learn.

One problem with conventional treatments for any disease is that they often remove the patient completely from the treatment and healing process; the doctors are making the diagnosis and recommending the appropriate treatment. Many ancient traditions know and believe (like Ayurveda - the healing tradition of India, and traditional Chinese medicine) that the intuition is a vital part of the healing process. This is taken into account and a relevant part of the treatment plan and subsequent healing of the patient.

Intuition And The Brain

intuition and the brain

Humans have two very different ways in which they process information and make decisions. The first is the quick, instinctual and often subconscious way in which we process things. That is controlled by the right side of the brain in some of the very oldest parts of the brain called the limbic system, also called the reptilian brain. The other way in which we process information is the slower, more analytical and very conscious way, which is part of the left hemisphere of the brain in a part that has only evolved relatively recently called the neocortex. Intuition is part of the first way. It is quick, and often doesn't make sense to us, as it is operating at a level below our conscious mind, but it has evolved over a very long time and is the part that kept us alive throughout human history. It is part of the reason we are all still here today.

Some interesting studies have revealed that over a hundred million neurons - the type of cells found in the brain - exist in the GI tract. This explains why people often say that they have a "gut feeling' about something. Your gut literally is your second brain. Another fascinating discovery is that the human digestive tract is able to operate separately and independently from the brain, meaning that it can make decisions without any input from the brain at all. What this means is that there is now a scientific explanation for why many people have a very strong "gut reaction" to things. There are many, many things that ancient cultures have known for thousands of years, but science is just now able to prove their existence scientifically.

There are also many scientific studies to show that the intuition knows the right answer to things, long before our conscious minds do. Some studies even suggest that the intuition can allow people to predict the future, even if it is only by a few seconds. Another study shows that people using their intuition to make major life decisions, such as who to marry, where to live or if they should take a certain job are 60% happier with their decisions, compared to people who had a lot of time to pour over all the information and think through their decisions.  Their satisfaction with their ultimate decision was only 25%. Food for thought.

The Ways Intuition Can Manifest

developing your intuition

There are many different ways in which your intuition will communicate with you, and it will be different for everybody. Some people hear a voice that tells them very clearly when to do or not do something. Others have feelings, such as "gut feelings" that tell them if a decision is right or wrong for them, others say their intuition comes to them in circumstances, such as speaking to a friend who tells them exactly what they need to hear or for others it is serendipitous "coincidences" that help them choose the right path. Another way that intuition can communicate with us is through dreams. Many people communicate with different parts of their subconscious through dreams, and this is a common way to get the information you need for whatever situation you are contemplating.

I have to say that reading through the chapter on intuition in my book was wonderful because of all the documented cases of remission from cancer because people listened to their intuition (even when other people thought it was a crazy idea), but none of it was SURPRISING. When it comes to things like that, the author was essentially preaching to the proverbial choir. But, it did yield two other very excellent results. One was that this researcher, someone who had never even considered that intuition had a role in healing now KNOWS that it does. I am always so elated when people who have come up through the annals of science are open to things that perhaps do not fit within the confines of their chosen profession or world view. And the other thing is that my patient had his world broken open. These concepts, as he told me, had never occurred to him before. The contents of the entire book were a departure for him, and reading it was both a profound experience and gave him something that Western medicine couldn't, HOPE that he could get better. And there is nothing in the world more healing than that.


why you need intuition

* Lead image from The Emotion Machine
* Brain image from Conscious Life News
* Eye image from Reality Pod