By Beth Schreibman Gehring- Chairman of Education Western Reserve Herb Society
Good afternoon everyone! Wherever this finds you , I hope that it finds you well and happy, safely surrounded by your loved ones!
I've written this article in response to an email that has been making the rounds concerning the possibility of elderberry products exacerbating the dangerous phenomenon that is known as the Cytokine Storm, which we are hearing about constantly right now as we are learning more and more about COVID-19. This email was sent to me last night, but this wasn’t the first I’d heard of the concern about elderberry and cytokine storm. I'm a herbal educator who likes to work with the medical community, even though I’ve always been a proponent of traditional herbalism.
For me, simply getting the facts without demonizing a generally helpful herb just makes sense. What I discovered when doing the research the other day for someone else who brought this concern to me, was that much of this misunderstanding was coming from several articles posted on some of the online mothers groups. There’s even one that uses an article from the Lancet to try to back up the claims. I spent all afternoon combing the Lancet articles and they had been completely taken out of context, simply to prove the point with no mention of elderberry at all.
What is going on with this new scare is not unlike the anti-vaccine conversation, where many hypotheses have quickly turned into statements of “fact”, blurring the real truths usually found in the center between both sides of any argument. I mean no offense at all to anyone who is anti-vaccine but only pointing out that once that happens, hysteria breaks out quickly in this information age and that is what appears to have happened here. This has many of us who are involved in herbal education really upset right now. It’s happening because people are so scared and I don’t blame them but they need to use the information they find correctly and without making simple assumptions out of fear.
The email sent last night was sent to me by someone whose pediatrician sent it to her. I don’t blame the Pediatrician for being upset at all and for asking their patients to discontinue using it. The liabilities would be huge if anything were to go wrong, even if elderberry had nothing really to do with it. We live in a very litigious society. I have since I received it, seen this posted several different places in unrelated sources which leads me to believe that it's being grabbed and dispersed without any real research.
That being said, most of the pediatricians, functional and family physicians who work directly with herbs and herbalists believe that elderberry does not contribute to the phenomenon of the cytokine storm. That being said, they/we are also very cautious about suggesting it to anyone who is known to be immune compromised. That is just common sense. We’ve known forever in the herbal community that elderberry can ramp up the immune system and like I said last night, it should never be suggested to anyone who is known to be immune compromised or anyone for that matter who is using any medicines to help promote an immune response.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or lupus, you really need to discuss using elderberry with your Doctor. For instance, my brother is diabetic and also on anti- rejection drugs. There’s no way he should ever consider taking it. When my father was fighting an antibiotic resistant superbug, we did not use it because his immune system was already too compromised and because he was also fighting a host of autoimmune issues. He was on Proscar for his prostate and Plaquenil for his rheumatoid arthritis and we felt that elderberry could have stimulated his immune system too much.
Elderberry should never be used by anyone who is taking Theophylline for asthma or other respiratory conditions because it can reduce the levels of those drugs, causing them to not work as well. If you are taking a diuretic it’s a no go because elderberry is already a diuretic and elderberry also has laxative qualities. Diabetics need to be really careful because elderberry can reduce blood sugar too much and too quickly. It’s contraindicated for anyone on chemotherapy as well. These are very practical things though and this information is easily available from any pharmacist and most good herbalists already know it because we have to be so careful. In my own experience, these contraindications are often not as well known by many Doctors, which is why I always say to become your pharmacists best friend and then share what you've learned with your Doctor!
Personally, elderberry is not part of my immunity arsenal except in cases like this when I am trying to be extra cautious. For times that aren’t as urgent I personally rely on a really healthy diet, lots of sleep, meditation, movement, plenty of water and green tea, bone broth to which I’ve added lots of fresh ginger, garlic and fresh turmeric, zinc (in low amounts), vitamins C, D and B, refrigerated Probiotics, Prebiotics, astragalus, olive leaf extract and a reishi mushroom mixture.
When a nasty bug is circulating I’ll generally begin to take elderberry right after I’ve had the direct exposure and continue it for about 7 days. If I still get sick what I’ve noticed for myself is that I generally recover faster. I discontinue its use very quickly, generally about three days into my illness and move on to zinc and Umcka, an African Geranium that is thought to help with recovery from colds and flus. That’s been the standard way most of us have used elderberry for years, it’s only recently that it’s become used as a daily prophylactic, as it's benefits became more widely known by the general public.
However, these are different times. I don’t blame anyone for using it that way right now ( I do blame them for hoarding it, that’s just silly!) and for most, it’s generally very safe provided it’s made correctly, even if you take it daily which I do not ever personally recommend. Most commercial preparations are made very well and are generally safe. Several years ago I spent months teaching so many young mothers who were trying to making the syrup themselves. Their kids were taking their syrup and vomiting because they had been using unripe berries and some stems as well as the ripe berries! Unknown to many, elderberry is totally poisonous if not produced correctly. The plant is full of cyanide so there is a proper way to harvest it and produce it and for the record, most homemade elderberry syrup if produced correctly is as safe as anything you can buy.
I have been waiting for Aviva Romm to weigh in on this before I wrote about this. Aviva is one of the only Doctors (Yale Medical School) that I know of who is also a highly trained herbalist and midwife. I’ve loved and followed her work for years. She’s always "no nonsense" which is one of the things I love about her. She has created a COVID-19 site and you can find the link here. I am grateful to be able to share it with you; it is full of valuable information that we all need right now.
I have sent the link to an article she wrote last night, but I took this piece out of it as it directly relates to her feelings about this.
“What about Elderberry? There’s an enormous amount of information and misinformation circulating on the internet about elderberry, COVID-19, and a phenomenon called ‘cytokine storm.’ The bottom line is that most of the evidence for elderberry is for the treatment of flu when taken during the first 72 hours of symptoms, not for the prevention of either colds or flu, though one study showed a reduced duration and severity of colds (upper respiratory infection) in air travelers compared to those who didn’t use it.
Cytokine Release Syndrome (CRS), or in its extreme, cytokine storm is an immunologic phenomenon that occurs in advanced states of infection, for example, in ARDS, as mentioned above, a potentially severe advanced COVID-19 complication, sepsis, also a possible severe COVID-19 complication, or with certain specific immunologic medications (i.e., monoclonal antibodies). It was considered a major cause of death in the Spanish Flu, SARS, and H1N1 Interleukin-6 is a term often dropped in these conversations because it is an immune mediator that acts as both a pro-inflammatory cytokine but, simultaneously it also acts as an anti-inflammatory. The association with elderberry and cytokine storm is implausible; elderberry is not able to cause cytokine storm whether used for prevention or infection, or during infection. Were one to be experiencing cytokine storm, one would be far too sick for herbal therapies; this is an ICU/life support level crisis. Bottom line: elderberry is unlikely, based on what we know at this time, particularly relevant for COVID-19 prevention or even treatment of mild-to moderate symptoms and if you’re concerned about cytokine release syndrome or cytokine storm as a result of this herb, don’t use it. “
It’s always important to check in with your primary physicians, pediatricians and pharmacists before starting any herbal supplements, especially in a risky time like this. The problems usually come when people don’t. Because herbs are herbs they are assumed to be safer. They are for the most part EXCEPT that people forget that they are medicines... some of the oldest in the world. In this age of modern pharmaceuticals they can be dangerous because of how they can contraindicate with those medicines, something everyone needs to know and check out for themselves. For example, take the benign and delicious cranberry... healing for most, but not if you are taking blood thinners as it can possibly increase the risk of bleeding.
I always tell my clients, "You are responsible for your own health. Don't give your power away. In this day and age of Google, ignorance is definitely a choice. Learn everything you can and ask as many questions as you need!"
I do love Dr. Aviva Romms site and she’s always really on top of things. If you get a chance, take a look .. I think you’ll like her too and find her to be a wealth of really good and practical information!
I hope this helps! Stay well , safe and if I can be of help in any way please let me know!
Yours in beauty and magic,
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