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The Elderberry Controversy

thoughts on the elderberry controversy

(This was first posted on my Instagram in response to many people sharing a blanket suggestion not to use elderberry as prevention for COVID. We have very limited data about herbs and COVID so please read thoughtfully – this is not a suggestion that you should or should not take elderberry.  If you suspect you have COVID-19 please check in with your healthcare provider.)

Elderberries have been used for hundreds of years as food and medicine without ever having been linked to cytokine storms. In the past couple of decades we have done some research to show scientifically that elderberry has antiviral activity, specifically in regard to shortening the duration and severity of cold and flu. There’s also some evidence of its possible use as a preventative in a study of airplane travelers (in addition to many, many anecdotal reports).

Do we know how (or if) it works in relation to COVID-19? No. And if you are the type of person who needs a randomized controlled study before you use something, this herb is not for you (and actually probably most herbs are not for you because the money is not there to study whole herbs the way that we study pharmaceuticals or even extracts of herbs). Most of our herbal knowledge comes from historical use data that is often supported by smaller studies. And really, I too agree that elderberry may not be for everyone but making blanket statements about whole plants for the whole population is an apt demonstration of how modern Western medicine and herbalism differ in general.

Herbalists look at a whole herb and a whole person to determine what might best be suited. To take a 19 year old study about increased cytokines and draw a wholly different conclusion about elderberry’s role with cytokine storms is quite outlandish in my opinion. There are many, many things we eat regularly that can increase cytokines. Should we make blanket warnings for all of these items because they may increase our chances of developing problems if we were to get COVID? Elderberry’s ability to increase cytokines is probably why it is helpful in ramping up our immune system when we are getting a viral infection. But to suggest this has anything to do with cytokine storms, which are an end of life situation, where a person is in critical condition is quite a leap. Nobody is being treated by an herbalist with elderberries when they are experiencing cytokine storms.

If you read the 19-year-old paper and decide this is evidence that elderberry is not right for you, great! But I am very concerned by this approach of demonizing a whole plant in relation to this virus when it could be one of the things that help us. To me, the risk of COVID is much greater than the chance of increased cytokines (and how this would actually then play out to influence end of life cytokine storms is very theoretical and unclear…). One last thing to mention, the study was using a brand name elderberry extract and didn’t even look at consuming whole elderberry-based preparations.

This discussion is not an advertisement to take elderberry. I really don’t care whether or not you do and in my opinion, it’s not my top choice for immune boosting to prevent COVID. Would I take it if I started to feel the symptoms of an upper respiratory infection coming on? Absolutely. My relationship and understanding of elderberry goes way deeper than this theoretical conclusion people are working themselves up over. Please stop spreading this rumor unless you truly have read the research and have listened to several Herbalists opinion on it. You can search for Aviva Romm MD’s thoughts on it, Paul Bergner, Rosalie de la Foret, Guido Mase, and many more. And even if you do share the information about the study, perhaps you could consider making your post educational and allowing people to take personal responsibility for their healthcare decisions. It’s definitely a radical concept in our culture but it is at the root of my belief system and the foundation of true wellness.

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