When you’re laid up with sniffles and a sore throat, few things offer real relief. (Rest, fluids, and behind-the-counter Sudafed are most of those things.) But there are plenty of “natural” items on health store shelves that claim to help.
Today we’re looking at one with a teensy bit of scientific evidence behind it: elderberry syrup.
Elderberries, which come from the same plant as the elderflowers you might know from drink recipes, are an actual berry that might make you sick if you eat it fresh, but is commonly cooked and made into jams and syrups.
How strong is the evidence that it helps with colds?
Not very. There are a few studies (like this one and this one) that found people who took elderberry syrup recovered sooner from colds or flu than people who took a placebo. But these studies were small and tended to end with the researchers saying, hmm, interesting, I wonder if we’ll still see this effect in a larger and better study.
So far, a definitive study has not occurred. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health concludes: “Although some preliminary research indicates that elderberry may relieve flu symptoms, the evidence is not strong enough to support its use for this purpose.”
What are the risks?
This isn’t very well studied either, but so far if you are only taking a syrup, and not eating fresh berries or flowers, it seems you’ll be fine.
Some products might not have much actual elderberry in them
Just because a product has elderberries on the label doesn’t mean it’s equivalent to the maybe-it-works formulations used in studies. One set of researchers noted:
A number of the other preparations available lack or have a very low flavonoid content. We believe that adequate amounts, as well as the composition, of flavonoids present in the extract are essential for the therapeutic effect of elderberry syrup as reported in our study.
That study used a formulation of Sambucol that the researchers said contained a high amount of the flavonoids they believe are active ingredients.
But if you look on a typical health store shelf, the products have very different amounts of elderberry. Right next to Sambucol Original Formula you may find Sambucol Cold and Flu Relief, which is homeopathic and thus has little to no actual elderberry extract in it at all.
(Even if you believe in homeopathy, which you should not, homeopathic preparations are supposed to do the opposite of what a full strength dose of the drug would do. In other words, a syrup and a homeopathic preparation of the syrup should not have the same indications!)
Bottom line, elderberry medicines are unlikely to help and unlikely to hurt. If you have money to burn and you want to try your luck, just make sure you’re not getting the homeopathic version. And if you do get better in a few days, please don’t assume this proves elderberry is a miracle drug. It’s a cold. You were going to get better in a few days anyway.