3 ways to use elderberries to beat the flu this winter

Written by contributor Stephanie Langford of Keeper of the Home

As the snow flurries swirl outside the window, and I recover from my first flu of the year, I’m reminded how important it is to keep our immune system shored up and functioning well this time of year.

One of my passions over the past two years has been to discover how herbs can be used in so many simple ways, but with astounding effectiveness. Today I want to share with you an herb that anyone can use easily and safely for the whole family, to fight winter colds and flus.

Elderberry has burst onto the scene in recent years for its flu-fighting abilities. Though it has long been a part of folk medicine, modern medicine is beginning to take notice of this amazing herb. What makes it so powerful?

It contains Sambucus nigra agglutinin, which may prevent some strands of influenza from reproducing, helping to stop the flu virus dead in its tracks.

It is also high in flavanoids, reduces swelling, fights inflammation, and boosts the immune system. We all know that vitamin C is a potent weapon for immune function, and elderberry contains large amounts of it.

Another benefit to elderberry is that it provides soothing relief for many flu and cold symptoms, like headaches, fever, fatigue, coughing and sore throat. Recent clinical studies have even begun to sing its praises:

  • A preliminary study found that elderberry extract (ViraBLOC) helped reduce flu symptoms when taken within 24 hours of symptoms starting. One study suggested that elderberry could kill the H1N1 virus in test tubes, but researchers don’t know whether it would be effective against H1N1 in people. (source)
  • A small study published five years ago showed that 93% of flu patients given Sambucol were completely symptom-free within two days; those taking a placebo recovered in about six days. (source)
  • Researcher Erling Thom, with the University of Oslo in Norway, studied 60 patients infected with two strains of the flu virus. In the half of the group that took Sambucol, 90% had complete cure within 2-3 days, while the placebo group didn’t recover until day 6 and required more over-the-counter medications for their symptoms. (source)
  • In an Israeli study, 20% of those patients taking Sambucol had dramatic improvements in flu-symptoms within 24 hours. By the second day, 73% were improved and by day three, 90%. In the untreated group, only 16% felt better after two days. The majority of that group took almost a week to begin feeling better. (source)

I love it when science begins to confirm what herbalists have known for a long time!

When and how to use elderberries?

This wonder berry can be used both preventatively and as a remedy once you are already sick. From my understanding, though, it’s most effective once you’re already fighting a cold or flu virus, as opposed to something like echinacea which is more of a general immune system booster.

Of course, there are plenty of other natural remedies to try for colds or flus. But the more I learn about elderberry and try it myself, the more that I believe it’s a good one to reach for right away.

3 ways that you can use elderberries to beat the flu

What I love about elderberries is that they’re easy to use, no matter which option you choose!

I know some of you are newer to using herbs, so let’s go in order from the simplest and quickest, to the slightly more involved ways to use elderberries.

Tea

Tea is a great place to start. Anyone can make herbal tea to boost their health!

The absolute easiest way is to buy a high-quality tea bag like Traditional Medicinals Echinacea Elder. I took this recently while I was sick, because my shipment of bulk elderberries hadn’t arrived yet. The key is to steep for a long time (15-20 minutes) with something on top of the mug while the tea steeps. A small plate, a tupperware lid, etc. This keeps the medicinal qualities of the herbs in the tea.

Another brand that I would recommend is Yogi Green Tea Triple Echinacea, which also includes elderberries.

Want to make it yourself with dried berries? Here’s the simplest way to do it, or here’s a slightly more complex cold and flu fighting herbal tea recipe.

Syrup

If you want to get the goodness of elderberries into your kids, syrup is the way to do it!

I was looking at the Sambucol eldeberrry extract (a popular brand) at the store last weekend, and it reminded me why I make my own remedies. It included plenty of elderberries, of course, but also glucose syrup, purified water, citric acid, and potassium sorbate. It’s not terrible. There are certainly medicines and supplements with even worse ingredients, but it’s also not necessary.

This week, I made some more of my own elderberry syrup with just dried elderberries, raw honey, water and a bit of lemon juice.

My favorite tutorial for making the syrup is from Donielle of Naturally Knocked Up. Here’s another option for using fresh berries to make your syrup.

This is quick and simple to make, and it tastes very pleasant. It was a winner with my kids, who asked for seconds even though they aren’t sick.

Tincture

Tinctures used to seem so daunting to me, but once I began making my own this year, I realized that there’s really very little to it. The beauty of a tincture is that you get a very concentrated amount of the herb in a small dose, plus it will last for a very long time (without refrigeration), whereas something like a syrup is only good for a few weeks.

There are two basic ways to make a tincture. One uses glycerin and heat and takes just a few days, and the other uses strong alcohol like vodka and no heat, but it has to sit for several weeks before it’s ready.

If you want to go the vodka route, here are two tutorials to try:

Using fresh berries

Using dried berries

I opted for glycerin, partly because that’s what I had on hand, and partly because the nice, sweet taste is easier for kids to take.

You can see the entire glycerin-tincture making process in this post on my own blog. Note that it’s not an elderberry tincture in the post, but more of a vitamin and mineral one that I use as a daily supplement. However, the basic process is the same.

I currently have some elderberry tincture just finishing up, and all I did was fill a jar 1/5 with a mix of dried elderberries and rosehips (I wanted a combination because the rosehips pack a huge vitamin C punch), and then added glycerin and water in a 60:40 ratio until the jar was almost full. You could make it with straight elderberries, without needing to add anything else. Leave it in your crockpot, or you can just use a pot on your stove (you’ll just have to watch the water level more carefully) for the 3 days, then let cool and strain.

I store my finished tinctures in glass jars in a cool, dark cupboard and they’ll keep for years that way. For an adult, I would use a few dropperfulls daily, and less for a child, depending on their size and weight.

Where do you get dried elderberries?

If you don’t have a source of fresh elderberries where you live, which I don’t, it’s easiest to buy them dried in bulk.

My favorite sources are Mountain Rose Herbs and Bulk Herb Store. Both sell high quality dried herbs, as well as other supplies like tincture bottles.

Have you tried using elderberry for fighting flus and colds? What was your experience with it?

About Stephanie

Stephanie Langford has a passion for encouraging homemakers who want to make healthy changes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke, and (her newest!) through successful meal planning. Together she runs a music school teaching piano lessons in Surrey with her handsome husband, is mama to 4 little ones, and she is the editor and author of Keeper of the Home.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing my link. I really like your excellent blog…you are a natural born teacher! Blessings :)

    • Oh, thanks Jacqueline… blush. :) Your link was very helpful, and I’m always appreciative of finding good tutorials to share with my readers!

  2. I am one of those who is new to herbs; thank you for your helpful information. I made my first elderberry syrup one or two months ago.

    Can you tell me how to store dried berries and how long you can store them? I have some in an airtight container where they have been for probably two months. Can I still use them or do I need to buy new ones?

    • As long as they’re somewhere airtight and they don’t come in contact with moisture (and out of light is best as well), they should technically be able to be stored indefinitely. That’s the beauty of using dried herbs- they can be stored for so long! If they came in contact with moisture, then I imagine mold would develop on them, or their color or scent would change indicating that they’ve lost some of their potency, etc. (I’ve never had it happen, so I’m not sure). Two months isn’t long at all, so if they look and smell good, I’m sure they’re completely fine! I would probably only worry about it after longer than a year.

  3. We have been making elderberry syrup now for two years and can attest to the fact that this stuff is AWESOME! I do generally just make it when someone starts with symptoms, but give it to the whole family when one becomes sick. We have had several instances where only one or two got sick instead of the whole family. Pretty good for a family of 8. It does dramatically cut down on the days we are sick also.

    One tip – add a cinnamon stick and a few cloves to the elderberries and rose hips when you steep them. They have antiviral and antibacterial properties and the syrup stays good much longer in the fridge. I have had it last at least 2 months that way. The one time I didn’t use cinnamon and cloves, we had mold growing in three weeks.

    • Interesting, I had heard of adding things like cinnamon, cloves and rosehips for flavor and medicinal reasons, but never thought about them for keeping it good longer. That’s a helpful tip, thanks! Love the testimonial of how it works for your family. With a family of 8, I’m sure that anything that keeps sickness from spreading more than it needs to is a huge plus in your books! :)

  4. I started using elderberries two years ago and love being able to boost our immunity naturally. We do tea often and then cool it for the kids to enjoy too. The syrup is a hit but sometimes it gets lost in the fridge.
    We made blackberry elixir this year with brandy. It has similar properties and gives you that warm and cozy feeling inside when you start feeling run down. http://bit.ly/PRn6FR

    • I know, my natural remedies get lost in the fridge sometimes, too. I’m trying to get better at it by putting things in mason jars with white plastic screw on lids, then writing what’s in the jar with a wipe-off marker. It helps this forgetful mama, at least a little. :)

      And that blackberry elixir sounds great!

  5. Would this be safe during pregnancy?

    • Yes, to my understanding it is. I would take it, personally. Still a good idea to check with your midwife or doctor, but I think it’s fine.

    • I took elderberry syrup during my pregnancy and did not get sick once! It’s fantastic in my opinion.

      One word of warning though. I bought some elderberry syrups at the store that had other herbs mixed in, like horehound, which is NOT safe to use during pregnancy. I ended up giving it to my kids when they were sick. So be sure to read labels if you buy the syrup ready made.

      The pure elderberry syrup tastes better too. I like to mix it in with warm herbal tea or applesauce.

  6. We keep our home made syrup in the freezer. The honey keeps it from getting hard and it is yummy slushy.

  7. Steph… Yes, safe for Pregnancy, nursing & babies…
    http://nursingbydesign.livejournal.com/53375.html

    :)

  8. How did you know I needed this RIGHT NOW? I’m the last person in my family of 5 to come down with this gross cold/flu thing. I’m new to herbs – eager to learn…. thank you for sharing.

    Now…I just need to find some elderberries – quick. Sounds like a good Saturday activity for my husband :)

    Hopeing to feel better fast,
    Kate

    • Oh, sorry you’re sick! I wrote this because I had just been sick earlier in the month, and was reminded how much I needed it! Glad this is helpful for you- I hope you can get those elderberries quickly!

      • Thank you :)
        I’m feeling pretty yucky now. Found some elderberry extract – and some tea with elderberry in it.
        Please God – make it help!

  9. bruce smith says:

    great Article on Elder berries!! I’m getting some this year and trying out these Ideas!!

  10. Thank you for posting, so excited to learn more about Elderberries. What about taking it in capsule form from the health food store? (Sorry if its a silly question….I’m a newbie)

  11. BEst psot so nice great!

  12. Nice to be here and see your post! Thank you for sharing so much!

  13. I have made a few glycerin tinctures and they have started to grow mold about one month after making them. DO you have any insight as to why? We live in Asia so it is very humid and I haven’t found a source for 100% glycerin so I use 80% pure. But I store them in a sealed glass container in the cupboard. If I put them in the fridge do you think that would help or just stick with vodka?

  14. I make an elderberry syrup with local honey regularly. My husband has allergy related asthma and wheezes quite a bit at night. 1 tablespoon before bed seems to do the trick. Would love to know how you prepared your lozenges. Would you be willing to share the how toos of this? Thanks

  15. I have the flu and need to know if taking capsules from Health Food Store the same as syrup. They are out of syrup and tea

  16. John Bonifant says:

    Are other parts of elderberry besides the berry edible or of medicinal use? Roots, leaves, flowers, stems, seeds inside the berry?

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