Background

In my line of work as a Medical Librarian in a community hospital, I receive a number of weekly email updates from publications and databases to help keep me informed on topics likely to be of interest to the clientele I serve – our physicians, nurses, hospital staff and general public. A little over a year ago, I received one during the height of the H1N1 or Swine Flu outbreak that was of particular interest to me.

I am unable to get the flu vaccine, due to a previous reaction a few years ago. This is of some concern to me, since I do work in a hospital. (And even if you can get the flu shot, it is not always 100% effective against the year’s current flu strain as it must be produced ahead of time; it’s at best an educated guess as to which strains will be involved — so it’s great to have some additional support on hand). Fortunately, I’ve only had the flu once in my life — but it was enough to know that it’s something I don’t want to go through again! So when this email came through with an update titled “Elderberry Extract May Reduce Influenza Symptoms”, I was definitely interested.

Not only was the subject pertinent, but the source was one of the most highly respected in the medical field. It came from DynaMed, an evidence-based “reference tool created by physicians for physicians and other healthcare professionals” by monitoring over 500 medical journals and databases. The editors select “articles most likely to change clinical practice”. What makes this topic particularly fascinating is that elderberry is an herb, not a pharmaceutical. It is not often that mainstream medicine shows an interest in “folk remedies”.

Summary of the Article

In a spring 2009 study done in China, patients were given either elderberry extract or a placebo within 24 hours of exhibiting flu-like symptoms. After 48 hours, the elderberry group had a higher rate of either complete symptom relief or significantly reduced symptoms. Other studies showed similar results with an elderberry extract syrup called Sambucol. In one of those studies, conducted by the Norwegian University of Oslo School of Medicine, those individuals given Sambucol showed significant improvement after an average of just 3.1 days, as compared with 7.1 days for the placebo group. Anyone who has ever had the flu can appreciate the value of those 4 days! And unlike many medications with long lists of side effects, no major adverse effects have been reported with Sambucol, as long as the proper recommended dosing is followed.

How Sambucol Works

It’s important to note that the only version of elderberry syrup used in the studies and definitively shown to have an effect is marketed as “Sambucol”. It’s available in the cold and cough syrup aisle of the pharmacy. One dose of 2 teaspoons contains 3.8 grams of elderberry extract. The packaging for Sambucol describes it as providing “Immune System Support”. Elderberries are unusually high in phytochemicals called flavonoids, particularly anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants These anthocyanins enhance our body’s immune system by aiding in the production of cytokines. Cytokines essentially let the body know when an increased immune response is required. The healing properties of the flowers and berries of the black elder bush were noted as far back as in the ancient writings of Hippocrates, considered to be the “Father of Modern Medicine”.

My Experience

Sambucol must be taken within 48 hours of your first symptoms in order for it to have an effect — and the sooner the better. Consequently, when I first read the email from Dynamed over a year ago, I decided to buy a bottle to have on hand — just in case. It was not cheap compared to some cold syrups — $12.99 — although I was able to find it on sale for around $10.00. I would have paid the higher price anyway, as it’s still less expensive than a visit to my doctor. (It should be noted that although Sambucol provides immune system support, there is no evidence to date that it works to actually prevent the flu; it just lessens the symptoms and allows for a quicker recovery once you think you have it).

Late on a recent Friday evening, I started to develop the unmistakable signs of a cold coming on. I guess it wasn’t too surprising since a number of people I work with had really severe colds and even my hair stylist (who I had just visited two days earlier) had one. Although Sambucol is indicated for flu, not colds, I remembered the bottle I had on hand. I figured any immune support would be welcome and decided to give it my first test. Even though my bottle had been purchased over a year earlier, I was relieved to see that it apparently had a very long shelf life and was not due to expire for another 11 months. So about 2 hours after the onset of my symptoms, I took my first dose (2 teaspoons). I was pleasantly surprised that my symptoms (mainly a runny nose) seemed to disappear within about 10 minutes. I had a good night’s sleep.

But when I woke up the next morning, I realized the cold symptoms had returned — although they were still relatively mild. But I could definitely tell I had a cold. So I took another two teaspoons, as well as some Vitamin C — which I figured couldn’t hurt (although I’ve never been able to prevent a cold by taking Vitamin C alone). Again the symptoms disappeared within 10 minutes. However, they did return throughout the day, about every four hours (when the dose would wear off). I continued to take the Sambucol — with the same symptom-reducing effects each time and had another good night’s sleep.

By day 3, I still had to take the syrup, which I might note is rather pleasant tasting, thank goodness. But I was able to go longer between doses. And by that evening, I didn’t even feel like I had a cold. I took it for one day longer though, just for additional support. I can definitely say that the Sambucol helped limit the severity of the cold and quickened my recovery. I went out and bought two more bottles since they were on sale for $3.00 off and won’t expire for more than two years.

Conclusion

Based on the medical literature and my own personal experience, it is my belief that it is definitely worthwhile to keep a bottle of Sambucol on hand — just in case. It seems to have worked to lessen the severity and duration of my cold. But I hope I never have to find out whether or not it works on the flu!

Disclaimer

Sambucol is not a substitute for visiting your doctor or for taking adequate precautions against the flu such as recommended immunizations, hand washing, adequate rest, and avoiding crowds and sick people when possible during the flu season. There is a child’s version available for children as young as 2 years old; it is not recommended for children younger than age 2. Please remember that all such herbal remedies and other supplements should be discussed with your health care professional. Herbal remedies are not regulated by the government and quality can vary widely from brand to brand.