In recent weeks, there have been some rays of hope in relation to the fight against COVID-19: Oxford University making progress with a possible vaccine; news of the development of a degree of herd immunity; and now, a hitech anti-viral facemask that actually destroys the virus.
However, one aspect that has been overlooked in this fight is the anti-viral properties of black elderberry (Sambucus Nigra).
In February 2020, near the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I found myself becoming a champion for black elderberry in relation to managing COVID-19. Over the following two months, I wrote three articles about it which were published on this site, Technical Politics.1 2 3
You can read the full details about my story and how black elderberry could be deployed in contributing to manage COVID-19 in the above articles, but essentially I had very successfully been taking daily black elderberry capsules for two years prior to February 2020 to prevent severe colds and coughs. I have a chronic medical condition that means I often don’t get enough sleep, perhaps five hours a night on a regular basis. I manage alright on this but am very prone to bouts of very heavy coughs and colds that can last for up to six weeks. As my work mostly involves talking, this was really interfering with my life. So, when a family member found scientific research that indicated black elderberry could help, I was keen to give it a go. Over the past two years, I have been taking black elderberry capsules, and in spite of still not really getting enough sleep, I haven’t had one cough or cold. I call that impressive!
So when COVID-19 came along I was interested in investigating if the anti-viral properties of black elderberry could help manage this virulent pathogen.
There is some convincing scientific research about the anti-viral properties of black elderberry but as the researchers admit more research is needed. In view of this it has just, for now, to be up to individuals to decide for themselves whether or not they want to take advantage of this anti-viral agent. Each person has to weigh it up for themselves and make their own decision.
A study by Golnoosh Torabien and colleagues published in 2019 in the Journal of Functional Foods showed that black elderberry inhibits the flu virus from entering and replicating in cells, and stimulates the immune system by increasing the production of the proteins cytokines. Patients with flu taking black elderberry had less severe symptoms and recovered about two to three days earlier than those who weren’t taking them
A meta-analysis, considering the results of several studies together, of a total of 180 participants, by Jessie Hawkins and colleagues at The Franklin Institute of Wellness, 2018, showed that black elderberry is effective and safe for treating viral infections.
Since writing my three articles, my experience of taking black elderberry, and, in all likelihood, of having been infected by COVID-19, absolutely concurs with the results of this scientific research.
In March 2020, I was probably infected with SARS-nCoV-2, but only developed mild symptoms lasting a month in total, including an intermittent dry cough, and intermittent severe headaches, sometimes with mild nausea. During that time, I was sometimes symptom-free. These to me seemed like attenuated symptoms, which considering I am 70 years old and already immunocompromised, was quite remarkable. Also family members, in their early forties, living next door and choosing not to take black elderberry had three continuous weeks of much more severe symptoms, namely a continuous dry cough with some fever and vomiting. It seems likely to me that black elderberry was affording considerable protection. Three months later when antibody tests became available my result was negative with no antibodies detected. However the GP seemed to think it was quite likely that I had been infected but that the test was not sufficiently sensitive to pick up any remaining antibodies. I have had no further COVID-19 symptoms since mid-April.
The medical authorities initially were taking an interest in the potential of black elderberry in relation to COVID-19 but became concerned that, as the research showed, it increased the levels of cytokines involved in stimulating a further immune response. The concern was that black elderberry might contribute to overproduction of cytokines, a cytokine storm, which in severe cases of COVID-19, triggers the self-destruction of vital organs and leads to death. However my research shows there is no direct evidence for this. In view of what is known about black elderberry’s effects it would seem unlikely, as it reduces the severity of symptoms so the immune system would be unlikely to be overstimulated in this way. There is also some evidence that long term use of black elderberry affects cholesterol levels. It is not clear whether this is beneficial or harmful, more research needs to be done. On reading this I thought I should have my cholesterol level measured and in spite of being on black elderberry for two years my cholesterol level was healthy.
There are aspects of black elderberry that we do need to be a careful about. If you choose to pick your own berries, it grows plentifully in the countryside in UK fruiting in August and September, they must be thoroughly cooked with plenty of evaporation, before being consumed. Raw elderberries are highly toxic causing major stomach problems, but when cooked properly they are fine. It also causes loosening of the bowel. So it is important to stick with the dosage recommended by the manufacturers. As a result of its laxative properties, research shows that it is an effective treatment for constipation.
The research cited indicates that black elderberry may serve to reduce the severity of symptoms in relation to flu and with some symptoms developing is likely to contribute to the building of immunity. My own experience suggests that this may also be the situation with COVID-19. Of course more research is needed, but as at present we have no other direct protection you may consider it worth investigating. As is recommended with flu you take the black elderberry as soon as you get symptoms following the manufacturers stipulated dosage and continue until the symptoms are gone. In my case, some suspected COVID-19 symptoms recurred after a couple of weeks of the main symptoms going, so I would take capsules for two weeks after the last symptom were I to face this again.
Extrapolating from the research, it would seem quite likely that for the vulnerable and for frontline health workers taking black elderberry continuously might be given further protection. As the black elderberry deactivates some of the virus, it could well reduce viral load in a hospital environment dealing with COVID-19 infected patients.
Jane Graham Reed is a retired science and health education teacher with psychological research experience. She is now training as a CBT therapist and does project work around mindfulness, well-being, meditation and mental health.
- ‘Could Black Elderberry Offer Protection from the Novel Coronavirus?’ 8 February 2020
- ‘Should the UK Government Trial Prophylactic Black Elderberry Dozes among those Suspected of Contact with COVID-19?’ 18 February 2020
- ‘Further Developments on a Possible Role for Black Elderberry in the Management of COVID-19 Symptoms’ 22 April 2020