Herbal remedies get a rough ride within the media. Articles are written with such unashamed bias that a culture of smirking and ridicule has blossomed in society. Those brave enough to speak out about the efficacy of plant extracts are branded as flaky hippies, or met with an eye-roll and a sigh, followed by “Placebo, darling. Go see your doctor/pharmacist/specialist.”
For years, this damaging view of plant-based medicines has led people to believe that they can only be treated by drugs and chemicals cooked up in a lab and prescribed by doctors. Certainly, in some instances, that is correct. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone should completely ignore pharmacology in favour of teas and tinctures, but folk remedies have been in use for thousands of years. If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t have carried on using them.
Thankfully there are still some research scientists willing to look into the potent chemistry lurking in these plants that make them valuable as remedies. Take the common black elderberry bush, Sambucus nigra, it has been commonly used for coughs, colds and flu symptoms for centuries, and only in recent years has anyone attempted to discover why it works better than most cough syrups bought over the counter.
The presence of powerful phytochemicals, including anthocyanins, mark this berry out as having anti-oxidant (Topolska,2015), anti-viral (Porter and Bode, 2017), immunomodulatory (Frokiaer,2012), anti-inflammatory (Olejnik,2015), and anti-microbial properties (Arjoon, 2012). To add to this gargantuan list of incredible capabilities, further reports have linked elderberry extract with anticonvulsant activity (Ataee, 2016) and anti-depressant effects (Mahmoudi, 2014).
A team from the University of Sydney, Australia, in 2019, analysed the anti-viral efficacy of elderberry extract on living cells that were inoculated with a common flu strain. They discovered that compounds from elderberries can directly inhibit the virus from entering and replicating in human cells, going as far as saying that it can also help to strengthen a person’s immune response to viruses.
Dr Golnoosh Torabian states, “What our study has shown is that the common elderberry has potent direct antiviral effect against the flu virus.” He also said, “It inhibits the early stages of an infection by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both viral attachment and entry into host cells.”
Although it’s hardly surprising that a plant used for so many years in folklore medicines should prove to assist with fighting infection, what the team observed during their study was perhaps more remarkable. Not only was the elderberry extract effective at stopping the virus from entering the cells, but it was particularly efficient at inhibiting viral propagation after infection.
In other words, it put a stop to the spread of the virus.
The team leader, Professor Fariba Deghani, said of this, “We identified that the elderberry solution also stimulated the cells to release certain cytokines, which are chemical messengers that the immune system uses for communication between different cell types to coordinate a more efficient response against the invading pathogen.”
What these eminent scientists are saying is that the biochemistry of elderberry juice defends human cells against viruses invading them in the first place, but should they already be present, those chemicals will stop the viruses from reproducing and trigger your immune system to fight harder against the infection.
Since elderberry extract has such a powerful effect on cell membranes, some scientists are looking into how it might affect the cells of cancerous tissues in human breast adenocarcinomas (Strugala, 2018), thus giving us hope that there could be a plant-based cure for more of our most tragic diseases.
My family are no strangers to folklore medicine and I have more than my fair share of ailments, many of which are categorised by my doctor as, “You’ll just have to put up with the symptoms.” While not life threatening, my chemical sensitivities make life difficult, particularly since the air quality where I live leaves me wheezing on a daily basis.
I decided to test out the anti-inflammatory properties of this super plant for myself. Gathering enough ripe berries, I simmered them in spring water for two hours, strained the liquor and added together two parts juice to one-part honey and one-part alcohol. Normally, walking up the two flights of my stairs to bed leaves me breathless and my lungs bubbling and fizzing. I took a tablespoon of the tincture on the first night, and the same dose every two hours for the following two days. I can now run up the stairs with clear lungs. This made me a little suspicious that it could work so quickly, so I reduced the dose the following day and the lung fizz and irritated cough began to creep in once again.
While this is hardly scientific, it is enough proof for me to continue with what is essentially more effective than the raft of medicines my doctor has prescribed for my allergic asthma. There are no side effects to taking the tincture, so there is no harm in continuing the dose. You never know, it might protect me from the coming flu season this winter.
It also gives me hope that more of the natural remedies and herbal medicines of yore will also be analysed for their phytochemical properties before we dismiss them as wives’ tales or grub them up in order to build more factories in which to create more toxic drugs for human consumption.
Perhaps we should look back to our medicinal heritage more often. We might discover the cures for all our ails were growing around us the whole time.
Should you decide to make elderberry tincture for yourself, be sure to only use the black, ripe berries and none of the leaves. The stems and leaves contain high levels of another chemical which is useful for making natural pesticides and could make humans ill if ingested.