Herbal Medicine: Is Elderberry safe to use for treating H1N1/H5N1?

The cytokine storm is an example of too much of a good thing. It’s a blizzard of signaling proteins called cytokines that is generated by various immune system cells as they coordinate an attack on an invading microorganism. But if this response runs out of control, it can cause potentially fatal inflammation and damage to the lungs. And that is what many researchers have thought kills people who are infected with H5N1. (cited from “Cytokine Storm Issue Poses Another Big H5N1 Question; studies conducted by St Jude’s as noted below)

There’s a rumor going around that it is dangerous – deadly, even – to use Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) as medicine while in the grip of the dreaded Swine Flu, H1N1, or Avian Flu, H5N1. The reasons being listed have to do with cytokine storms and Elderberry’s ability to raise cytokine levels.

I’m not a Dr to be sure, however as a practicing herbalist I do have more than cursory knowledge of herbs and their uses; it is frustrating to see people with limited knowledge of herbs making sweeping judgments about how to use them or their effects. That said, the more we advance in our abilities to understand illness the more we also understand the uses of herbs. Sometimes there is further clarity with an herb that we did not have before. So I checked out some of the links that were going around with ‘proof’ of the negative complications that could arise using Elderberry to discern for myself what all the fuss was about. If the contraindications were correct, I wanted to know.

I was not impressed with the arguments I came across. The information I found was not written by herbalists, or Doctors, or based on clinical trials or empirical observation. They appeared to be merely opinions of people who no doubt meant well but were connecting dots with chunks missing. So I dug a little deeper. Time-tested herbs seem to always prevail over hasty judgments.

The argument focuses on said Elderberry, an herbal remedy used for centuries for colds and influenza, that has also been proven in clinical trials to not only inhibit the ability of cold and flu viruses to entrench in our tissues and wreak havoc, but to lessen the duration of the illness by up to half. The rumor supposes that since Elderberry raises cytokine levels (an aspect of our immune response to illness) and the Swine flu has a unique quality that spikes our immune’s cytokine levels as well, therefore, taking Elderberry while sick with H1N1 results – supposedly– with a ‘cytokine storm’ that can be deadly. (Note: cytokine storms can cause inflammatory issues and rapid filling of lungs with fluid as noted above, and in fact science is still trying to understand the nature of cytokines; my focus here is to discern whether or not Elderberry contributes to this causation.)

I decided to look for the guts to this story and search for some serious studies and facts. First off, I could find no proof that anyone actually died from using Elderberry whilst bedridden with the H1N1 or H5N1 viruses. However, what I DID find was fascinating, and verified in my mind how effective Elderberry is during Cold and Flu season.

I came across a wonderful report from Herbalgram magazine and the American Herbal Council, which details the benefits and clinical studies done on the efficacy of Elderberry, especially the product known widely as Sambucol:

“Two randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled (R, DB, PC) studies investigated the efficacy of a proprietary elder berry syrup (Sambucol®) for treating symptoms associated with influenza. In these studies, involving 27 and 60 patients respectively, patients treated with Sambucol® recovered significantly faster than patients in the controlgroup.”

Here is an excellent article in regard to the efficacy of Elderberry, as researched and tested by the virologist, Dr Mumcuoglu, who created Sambucol. Here are some relevant quotes:

"Last week, Retroscreen Virology, a leading British medical research institute associated to Queen Mary College, University of London, announced that Sambucol was at least 99% effective against the avian flu virus, H5N1, and in cell cultures significantly neutralized the infectivity of the virus. "I think that Sambucol has a great role to play - it really can save lives," Mumcuoglu told ISRAEL21c. "To my knowledge, it's the only product that can cut the flu in half, before complications have a chance of setting in. If we do have a cure for chicken flu, this is a really positive thing for Israel."
 "In 1995, laboratory studies were carried out at Hadassah, which showed that Sambucol was effective against human, swine and avian influenza strains."

Second, a study at St Jude reveals we may not yet fully understand cytokine levels and their responsibility for deaths: that even when they lowered cytokine levels, sick mice still died from H5N1. The issue at hand it appears may lie more with the viral overload these viruses cause and not necessarily with the cytokine storms. Which leads me back to the efficacy of Elderberry: it specifically lowers the virus’ ability to spread in the body, which is one of the reasons it is so effective. It reduces the possibility of viral overload. When the body is not spending so much of its energy trying to fight this viral overload, it is better able to fight back the secondary problems that arise and even cause death from the initial illness of influenza, such as pneumonia.

Adding to this, I cannot say enough that one should not focus only on the viral aspect of the flu. Bacteria is always a secondary concern, specifically due to the inflammatory nature of these two flus and their tendency to raise fluid in the lungs (bacteria can then readily settle in), and more than ever since we have generations of people now that have been exposed to chemicals and antibiotics in our food (meaning, the consistent presence of these things have arguably interfered with our body’s natural immune process).

In my family, we take large does of Usnea, (Usnea wirthii, U.californica), which is considered a powerful ‘natural’ antibiotic. This is a full-spectrum anti-microbial: antifungal, viral and bacterial. I take this along with large doses of Elderberry and Echinacea (Echinacea specifically will stimulate your superficial immune response, while Usnea will fight to eradicate the nasty that has gotten into you. They each primarily do different things but compliment one another nicely). This season, I’ve also included some other effective and powerful herbs in a tincture that we take daily which includes Osha Root, Lomatium, Yarrow, Calendula, and Echinacea. This is a hard-hitting tincture that has served us well so far. It acts as not only an anti-viral/ bacterial medicine but also to helps to support the organs in their battle against cold and flu’s, through actions such as keeping tissues healthy and lymph and liver functioning at optimum levels to rid the body of harmful waste and illness.

Should you come across any information that supports either side of this argument, please let me know. Please email me citations, comments or questions.

Be Well!

Disclaimer: always educate yourself about medicine – herbal, natural, or Western allopathic before using them. Nothing I say is supported, endorsed or believed by the FDA. I am not suggesting that you ignore your own physicians’ recommendations at any time, only that you get educated, aware and healthy.

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