Learn Why This Fabled Berry Is a Flu Virus’s Worst Nightmare

The black elder tree, also called the elderberry tree, has a rich, longstanding history of folklore.

According to Earl Mindell in his Herb Bible, which provides folkloric factoids, during the Middle Ages, the English believed that it was the favorite tree of witches, who would take respite among its branches. To disturb such a tree would mean to incur the witch’s wrath. Also, the tree was said to have mystical abilities, and to have such an arboreal on one’s property meant good luck.

Maybe those who lived in antiquity somehow understood that the tree indeed offers something nearly “magical.” Its berries, in particular, have been found to contain compounds that can stop a cold or flu dead in its tracks, an accomplishment that still has not found its way into OTC pharmaceutical products or vaccines.

Gypsies, notes Mindell, traditionally have used the berry from the black elder tree (Sambuccus Canadensis nigra) as a popular remedy for flu and colds. Drunk as a hot tea, it promotes sweating and helps soothe upper respiratory infections. Elderberries are a good source of carotenes, B vitamins and Vitamin C, and they have long been used as a savory fruit in jams and pies, providing these vitamins in the diet.

Dr. Madeleine Mumcuouglu, Ph.D., a virologist based in Israel, is credited for discovering the mechanism of action of elderberry extract on colds and flu. In her booklet, Sambucus, Black Elderberry Extract, subtitled, “A breakthrough in the treatment of influenza,” she describes what a flu virus is and how it takes hold in the body, as provides information on how the black elderberry extract helps thwart the invasion of the virus.

The flu is triggered by any one of a family of viruses known as the myxoviruses influenza, and there are three types—A, B and C—of which A and B are the most common, with the type A virus being the most epidemic in nature and most mutative. A virus does not have the ability to replicate itself, and in order to do this, it must invade existing living cells, which alters the function of the cells. The mechanism whereby a virus actually enters the cell is through tiny spikes (known as hemagglutinin) on the surface of the virus that punctures the wall of the cell. Asserts Dr. Mumcuoglu, “That means that if you can stop the virus from entering the cell, you’ve defeated the disease.”

In the laboratory, Dr. Mumcuoglu discovered that the active ingredients’ in elderberries “disarm” the hemagglutinin by binding to them, which effectively prevents the piercing of the cellular membranes. “The viral spikes are covered with an enzyme called neuraminidase. This enzyme acts to break down the cell wall. Bioflavonoids, also present in high concentration in elderberries, may inhibit the action of this enzyme,” she writes.

Through her research, the virologist contends that flu vaccines often are ineffective in that they can frequently cause undesirable side effects, and only provide nominal protection. In addition, mutative flu viruses, particularly those of the Type A category, where new strains appear each year, is very difficult to combat through a vaccine. And B viruses seemingly are unaffected by flu shots. ‘The two existing anti-flu medications, Amantadine and Rimantadine, were shown to be mainly effective in the prevention of influenza A only. They do not have any activity against influenza B viruses.”

However, clinical trials with proprietary elderberry extract syrup have had some very positive results. Among those results, tests were done to determine the presence of flu antibodies in humans, and “it was found that the level of antibodies was higher in patients receiving the elderberry extract versus those receiving the placebo, indicating an enhanced immune system response in those patients,” Dr. Mumcuoglu reports. The tree also yields other healing aspects, according to CJ. Puotinen, author of Herbs to Help You Breathe Freely. Elder flowers from the black elder tree contain tannins that have been shown to help dry up excess mucus. Leaves from the tree also have been shown to have expectorant properties.

And, according to Humbart Santillo, B.S., M.H., author of Natural Healing with Herbs, “In large doses, elder can act as a purgative and diuretic. Elder is used for urinary complaints, edema, and rheumatic problems. The tea of the flowers is used as a diaphoretic to break fevers...Elder flowers are used in salves for skin diseases.”

Whole Foods Magazine April 1997. Reprinted with permission.

References available upon request