Grow the 'Berry a Day' that Keeps Influenza Away!
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As you know, we're going to have to get by on about half the amount of flu vaccine we would normally use this season. I'm forgoing the shot I usually get, and I hope that other healthy individuals out there are doing the same, so that the truly vulnerable among us can all be vaccinated. But there are more ways than just vaccines to avoid the flu, and so we delve into the world of herbal medicine this week.
Many of you know the good Dr. Jim Duke: PhD in botany from the University of North Carolina in 1961, retired from the USDA in 1995 after a long career researching the medical uses of wild plants in over 50 countries, recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus award from UNC in 2001, author of the million-copy selling book The Green Pharmacy (Rodale; 1997), old friend from my days as editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, and popular guest on You Bet Your Garden.
Last year, I edited a piece he was writing in which he explained that an herbal extract of European black elderberries had just passed its second clinical trial against influenza. He was furious that a story announcing this on the Web MD site had said 'not to expect Grandma's elderberry wine and jelly to work as well'. "It might work better!",Jim was fuming. He has always felt that the whole plant part—in this case an edible and tasty fruit—has much more healing potential than any isolated extract.
I agreed, but wanted to hear more about the extract. I didn't happen to HAVE an elderberry growing outside and another virus—the 'common cold'—was running through my kids schools like wildfire. Here's what I learned:
The first study was performed in the late 1990s on people who had recently contracted the Type B strain of influenza. 93% of the folks who were given the elderberry extract recovered from their symptoms in just two days, compared with six days of illness for the unlucky members of the placebo group. A 2002 study performed at the University of Oslo in Norway found similar results with people infected with the Type A strain—90% of the group that got the real herbal extract recovered in two to three days; the unlucky ones who got the placebo suffered twice as long.
Dr. Erling Thom, who ran the 2nd study (presenting his findings at the 15th Annual Conference on Antiviral Research in 2002) credited the extract's effects to immune system stimulating flavonoids and anti-inflammatory anthocyanins.
But Dr. Duke checked his old USDA database and found that elderberries also contain more than a dozen direct anti-viral compounds, any or all of which could account for the fruit's effectiveness. (We'll post his list of the naturally occurring compounds in black elderberry with anti-flu effects on our website. It's pretty astounding—and I had to cut it, so it's really just SOME of them!)
Anyway, the name of the extract is Sambucol. (Spell out) It's a cough-syrup like liquid, imported from Israel by the American herbal supplier "Nature's Way". The directions say to take two teaspoons four times a day to fight a viral infection and two teaspoons total a day to prevent one. That's right, prevent—although the studies were performed on people who were already sick, Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, the virologist who developed the extract, says it should also help reduce the chance of becoming infected. And, since it's felt to act as a basic anti-viral—not just anti-flu—it should also have the potential to knockout the symptoms of other viruses, like the much milder 'common cold' as well.
But again, Dr. Duke feels strongly that whole plants contain more healing potential than isolated extracts, and can't see why elderberry wine, jams, jellies and preserves wouldn't ward off influenza just as well—or even better. The berries of European elderberry are delicious, and very suited to preserves and wine making. And it's VERY easy to grow. In fact, elders are beyond easy—most types spread aggressively and need to be controlled with deep edging or given a place where they can freely roam.
The scientific name of the European black elderberry is Sambucus nigra; Sambucus for elderberry, nigra for black, referring to the deep dark reddish-purple color of the ripe berries. You can buy live plants or propagate cuttings from somebody else's in the Spring. The shrubs produce the most berries when they can cross-pollinate, so plant two different varieties if you can. The more plants, the more pollination, the more berries. And the more plants to keep under control—but it maybe worth the maintenance: In European tradition, elder was known as "Nature's medicine chest."
A highly ornamental variety called "Black Beauty" that was introduced last year is better behaved than most—topping out at eight to twelve feet, depending on who you believe. (Prune ALL elders back hard in the winter to keep them manageable and full.) Instead of the regular green, BB's leaves are a deep purple—like "Purple Ruffles" basil—the pink flowers are said to be huge (and lemon-scented!), the berries are recommended for wine making, and it should grow well almost everywhere. (Zone 4 all the way to 7 or 9, again, depending on…) We'll post links to more "Black Beauty" info at the website. And there's no reason to believe that the fruits of the AMERICAN elderberry (S. Canadensis) aren't as useful; and several ornamental varieties of this native species are available as well.
Oh—and never forget that frequent hand-washing is also a great way to dodge the flu—especially once we enter the season when the virus is actively spreading.
Dr. Jim Duke's (Partial!) List of Naturally Occurring
Flu-Fighting Phytochemicals in Elderberry
Analgesics (pain relievers): caffeic acid; chlorogenic acid; ethyl-salicylate;
ferulic acid; menthol; myrcene; quercetin; ursolic acid.
Antibronchitics (relieve throat inflammation): menthol; linalool
Anti-inflammatories: (relieve swelling and inflammation, like aspirin, Advil, Naproxen, etc): alpha-amyrin; betulin; betulinic acid; caffeicacid; chlorogenic acid; cycloartenol; ferulic acid; hyperoside; kaempferol; lupeol; menthol; n-hentriacontane; oleanolic acid; quercetin; rutin; ursolic-acid.
Antitussive (cough suppressant): terpinen-4-ol
Antiviral: betulin; betulinic acid; caffeic acid; chlorogenic acid; cyanin; ferulic acid;
hyperoside; kaempferol; limonene; linalool; lupeol; oleanolic acid; quercetin; rutin; ursolic acid
Expectorants (loosen phlegm): astragalin; limonene; linalool; menthol
Immunostimulants (boost the immune system): astragalin; benzaldehyde; caffeic acid; chlorogenic acid; ferulic acid
For more information:
Here's the link to that (somewhat schizophrenic) story about Sambucolat Web MD:
(Note: Both Dr. Duke and myself disagree strongly with the dismissive way the whole fruit is referred to in this article, and with Dr. Andy Weil's endorsement of prescription anti-viral drugs, which have never seemed to function better than placebos, at least in the research I've seen. (Interestingly enough, this may be the first time I've ever disagreed with Dr. Weil; I've taken his clinical course in botany at Columbia University and consider him one of the finest doctors in America.)
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