The People's Perspective on Medicine

Have You Tried Elderberry to Ease Your Cold Symptoms?

Elderberry rob. a homemade concentrate of berries and spices, is used as a type of hot toddy to ease cold symptoms. Have you tried it?
Sambucus berries. Common names include elder, elderberry, black european elder, European elderberry, European black elderberry. Black sambucus berries & leaves growing on tree or shrub. Fruit cluster

What is your favorite cold remedy? Sometimes people rely on drugstore products, but they may not be aware of the potential side effects from a multi-symptom cold product. We frequently prefer home remedies, such as chicken soup or thyme tea. A reader recently reminded us about elderberry, a botanical product that has been used for decades or longer.

Elderberry Rob for Cold Symptoms:

Q. Now that we are into cold season, it’s a pity that my favorite remedy isn’t better known. Elderberry rob is a traditional treatment for coughs and colds. To make this, elderberries are boiled with honey, cinnamon and allspice and the resulting syrup is strained and mixed with a little brandy as a preservative. A few spoonfuls of this mixed into hot water usually reduces cold symptoms very effectively.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) grows wild in many places in North America. I suspect that the homemade syrup probably retains more of the plant’s properties than most over-the-counter Sambucus preparations.

A. Elderberry juice preparations have long been used to treat respiratory infections.

Although it is not well studied, an analysis concluded that

“Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms” (Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Feb. 2019). 

An Australian study found that air travelers taking elderberry were less prone to colds and had milder symptoms (Nutrients, March 24, 2016). Some Sambucus compounds prevent viruses from replicating or attaching themselves to respiratory tract tissues (Virus Research, Nov. 2019). This research utilized an Asian species of Sambucus, while the clinical trial investigators used S. nigra, a European species. However, the American S. canadensis is similar.

Our reader is right that S. canadensis grows in many places, especially if they are a bit damp. Bushes in our yard bear lots of flowers that we collect and dry. In the winter, we use them to make a pleasant tea to calm a cough.

Whether making a rob as described or other any other preparation, be sure to use only ripe berries and do not include stems or leaves. Cyanide-related compounds in the stems can be toxic. You can learn more about this herb here

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Download 8 pages of natural approaches to treating colds, including zinc, vitamin C and herbs. Recipes for ginger tea, hot toddies and a powerful chicken soup.

Colds, Coughs & the Flu
  • Hawkins J et al, "Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials." Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Feb. 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.ctim.2018.12.004
  • Tiralongo E et al, "Elderberry supplementation reduces cold duration and symptoms in air-travellers: A randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial." Nutrients, March 24, 2016. DOI: 10.3390/nu8040182
  • Weng JR et al, "Antiviral activity of Sambucus FormosanaNakai ethanol extract and related phenolic acid constituents against human coronavirus NL63." Virus Research, Nov. 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.virusres.2019.197767
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Can you buy elderberry over the counter????

Elderberry concentrate 2 tsp daily does work in combating H1N1 flu virus. One year I opted not to get the flu shot and took Elderberry daily, outcome, no flu or colds. Now I did get the flu shot this year but my doctor said it was not effective against all strains of flu. He advised using salt water nasal spray within 15 minutes of being around the public and after going to the bathroom. The salt water spray deters the flu virus from entering the nasal passages, thus avoiding getting the flu. I use a bottle of salt water nasal spray very often and for four years have not contracted the flu, and I am 71 now. Salt water nasal spray is not advertised. Rather, the drug companies would rather sell you their expensive products often with worst side effects. I also use the elderberry sambuscus cough drops and give the same to my grandchildren. Everyone in my family are believers now and use elderberry and the salt water nasal spray.

Where would a person get elderberries around here in southern Illinois?

I used elderberry syrup last year very effectively. Every time I felt ill I started taking several spoonfuls per day. I never got sick. I foraged and made my own syrup but even though I refrigerated it, it got mold on top. I purchased a syrup, and it was great. I have 2 bottles in my refrigerator for this year’s cold and flu season.

I’ve been making my own elderberry syrup for many years. At the first sign of a cold – sore throat, etc., I take ~a tbsp in 4-6 oz of warm water, or stir it into my vitamin C powder. I usually take it 2-3 times the first day and continue through the next, if needed. If I catch the cold early enough, I rarely have to go beyond 1-2 days.

It’s important to know not to boil the honey with the berries but to add it after it has cooled down so as not to destroy the effectiveness of the honey.

You cannot boil elderberries with honey, as you lose all the wonderful enzymes in the honey. I simmer the elderberries in water til half the water is gone, strain, and cool til just warm enough to add honey and jar or freeze.

Freezing just the juice allows me to defrost it as needed and warm as much honey as elderberry juice (50:50) and use.
I have made and used this for years, and it is wonderful.
I have planted my own bushes. Easy to grow.

Are there commercially available products of elderberry rob or something similar?

I have recently been using this from a local organic company due to the sniffles. 2 teaspoons twice daily. Nothing more has come about. I will cut back in a few more days to once daily during cold season as I do not get the influenza immunization.
Wish me luck!

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