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As a health writer, I’ve heard a lot of tips from physicians and nurses over the years about how to prevent colds and flu. There are the commandments: Get a flu shot, wash your hands frequently, consistently log seven to nine hours of sleep. But then, occasionally, some more unconventional tips come along, including one that piqued my interest and that I now personally swear by:
Take elderberry supplements throughout cold and flu season.
These antioxidant-packed berries can not only boost your immune system, but some studies have shown they have the potential to shorten the duration of a virus once you’re already sick.
Elderberry, and the advice to take it to help boost your immunity, is by no means new — we just don’t hear about it all that often (unless we’re friends on social media, in which case I’m constantly spreading the gospel about this superberry, relentlessly dropping it in comments when people ask for cold remedies).
But extracts from this medicinal plant have been used in folk medicine for centuries, and researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture have pointed to elderberries as being packed with 50% more antioxidants than some of the more common berries. According to Monisha Bhanote, M.D., a triple board-certified physician, black elderberry extract has been studied in more than a dozen human clinical trials for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Curious if elderberry could be a way to cut down on my sick days (I’m self-employed; they’re unpaid!), I’ve been taking elderberry supplements for the past two years during cold and flu season. Here’s how it’s gone for me and what researchers have to say about this antioxidant-packed purple berry.
My Introduction to Elderberry
I was in a desperate “I’ll try anything!” phase when I first gave elderberry a go almost two years ago. You see, I was preparing for the trip of a lifetime: a two-week hiking expedition through Japan.
As the trip was nearing, I felt my throat get scratchy. No. My body started to ache. No, no! Then, my ears began to pop. No, no, no! How can I get on a 12-hour flight like this? Germs, germs, go away, come again another day.
In addition to the cold medications I was taking, I added elderberry gummies to my aggressive takedown strategy of the virus. A naturopathic doctor I once interviewed told me that her patients who travel frequently take elderberry regularly and, when I saw the supplement in a drugstore aisle, I tipped a plastic jar of the gummies into my basket with a “can’t hurt” kind of attitude. As it turns out, a 2016 study involving airplane travelers did find that elderberry extract could reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms among travelers.
Who knows what I can credit it to — the elderberry, logging a lot of ZZZs, gargling with salt water — but I was able to nurse myself back to health before my departure date. After that dramatic episode, I decided to start taking elderberry gummies as an immune booster during the cold and flu season.
I need as much of an immunity boost as I can get. In addition to health, I write a lot about travel and spend a good deal of time aboard airplanes, obsessively swabbing down the germy tray tables with disinfectant wipes. I also volunteer as a basketball coach and, as adorable as the “little dribblers” are, kids are, in fact, germ factories.
So, How’s My Elderberry Experiment Been Going?
Because I’m self-employed, I track how much I earn every day. I have a column in my Excel spreadsheets to make note of any days I take off, or anything that might be pulling my productivity down (PMS! Tech problems! Travel days!). In my first year of freelancing, I had eight sick days, a few during which I couldn’t get out of bed. The other five days, I felt crummy but was still able to kinda, sorta string together sentences and file articles.
Since I’ve been taking elderberry these past two years, though, I’ve only had one cold (knock on wood!) that lasted a few days and I was able to stop it before it turned into an ear infection, which is often my fate.
My productivity also plummeted when the second season of “You” came out on Netlflix, so science this is not. But I like to think the elderberry is deserving of credit f0r cutting down on my sick days. After all, another small study that was published in the Journal of International Medical Research found those who took elderberry extract shortened their flu symptoms by a whopping four days compared to peers who took a placebo.
In addition to getting my flu shot each year, and trying my best to get a solid eight hours of sleep every night, I plan to continue taking elderberry. (I order these Nature’s Bounty gummies on Amazon; and, for those with children, there are also elderberry gummies for kids made by Mommy’s Bliss.) I mean, why not? It’s extra armor against all those germs — on the basketball court and in the airports — that are so prevalent during cold and flu season.