While we herbalists love lots of plants, each and every one of us has a few herbs that we are especially fond of.
One of mine is Elderberry. I could go on about it for hours and hours. From the simple beauty of it growing in a backyard to stories about bubbling pots of it on the stove while making syrup - like when I got distracted and returned to a purple kitchen!
I have so many wonderful memories of this plant, from teaching friends to make the syrup to yelling at my mother for eating the unripe berries (Do not eat the unripe berries, mom or anyone else!!!!).
Last year my son Parker even got to try his first elderberries from Grandma's (whom he calls Gram Cracker) backyard. From my mom to my son, elderberry runs in our veins.
Parker and Gram Cracker creeping from behind the bushes.
It is an incredible plant and has been used by Native Americans and Europeans alike for many, many years.
There are actually two main types of Elder, American (Sambucus nigra sbsp. Canadensis) and Black Elder (S. nigra sbsp. nigra). They are considered to be subspecies. Most people are more familiar with the Black Elder, but both have a long and rich history of use.
There have been many an article on the health benefits of elderberry, along with a lot of research.
If anyone is interested, I would be happy to share articles or scientific papers with you, but the benefits and quality control of Elderberry are for an article for another day.
As you can see (or if you want to hear someone talk about a berry for four hours, just let me know), I am a huge elderberry fan.
Over the last month or so, I started to get emails and see posts from people saying that you should avoid elderberry or elderberry will make certain conditions worse, and I became very concerned. They were saying that it could cause a cytokine storm.
Was Elderberry not as safe as I previously thought? Was it making certain things worse?
Now, as with every herb, food, or drug, there are always going to be some people who have an allergy to it or have a specific reason they should not use it.
No herb is right for everyone.
Anyone saying that one thing is right for everyone or a cure-all is not someone you should take seriously.
However, what was being written and said was nothing of the sort of normal disclaimers that are given, such as:
You should always talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement or medication and inform them of any supplements and medications you are using.
Instead, it was basically slander of a plant.
Parker does not approve of plant slander; it makes him very angry.
I was pretty upset about my boy elderberry getting beat up on for no reason other than it was becoming popular, or they just wanted some clickbait to get eyes on their website or social media postings.
My initial instinct was to come out swinging and be a bit of a jerk about things because I was feeling pretty emotional about it.
I called a few herbalist friends, and they talked me out of doing that. Over the same period of time, they had gotten the same emails and seen the same posts.
Buckle up and put your thinking caps on because it gets intense from here on out.
Before we continue, let's go through Science and Research 101.
Just because something happened in a test tube or petri dish does not mean that it will happen inside a person. This is a very important point. For example. many things will kill bacteria, cells, or viruses in a petri dish but would not have this same response in the human body for a variety of reasons.
Another substance may seem effective at killing viruses in a petri dish, but if a person ingested enough of that substance to have an effect on the body, it could make them very sick or kill them.
Chlorine bleach is a great example of this. It is a great disinfectant, but you would not want to ingest large amounts of it to kill a viral or bacterial infection in your body.
Just because something happens in animals or lab rats does not mean it will happen in people. Lab rats are often bred specifically to be more prone to get a certain disease that is being researched, for example.
Rats and other animals often have different metabolic and other pathways than humans do. While animal research (setting aside the ethical issues for a moment) is a step in the process for many substances, conclusions should not be drawn from this and automatically applied to people.
Clinical trials in people must be conducted properly and be of a proper length of time and size.
There are too many parts of a clinical trial to go through all of them here, but if you would like to view the whole process and how it should be done, you can view it here.
If you are trying to determine what a particular substance does, you would want to do a clinical trial using only that substance. If you gave three different things at the same time, you would not be able to draw a conclusion on only one of them unless you had an arm of the trial where each one was separate.
When dealing with herbs, you also need to ensure that the material used in the trial is properly manufactured and tested. You would be amazed at how many clinical trials on herbs are done using adulterated or contaminated products. You would not be able to draw any conclusions about an herb using a product like that.
While there are other things to consider, those are four good points to keep in mind.
Anyone who claims to care about good science but ignores those four points either does not understand how it works or cares more about likes on a page (and their ego) than about good research and education.
Yes, all scientists are that adorable.
Ok, now on to the meat and potatoes of the issue.
The study that is being referenced in order to support the claims of elderberry worsening or causing a cytokine storm is this.
This was a study on human monocytes. Blood was drawn from 12 healthy subjects. Then adherent monocytes were separated from PBL and incubated with various elderberry preparations.
That's fancy talk for a test-tube study.
Nearly all of the articles and social media posts making claims about Elderberry causing a cytokine storm referenced (if they gave any references at all) this study over and over.
We should not make conclusions about the effects on people of any herb, drug, or food from a single test-tube study. Any good researcher or scientist would tell you that.
Many of these were written and made by people who know very well how science works and know that conclusions on what would happen in an actual live human being should never be drawn based on a study like this.
I spoke to and corresponded with many people involved with plants, herbalism, and medicine (everyone from doctors to pharmacognosists), and no one I spoke to, or the people I spoke to had spoken to, had been able to locate any evidence of elderberry causing a cytokine storm or making a cytokine storm worse.
Could a properly done study exist, and all of us just missed it? I suppose it's possible, but not probable.
One study was found that specifically tested a preparation containing elderberry and two other herbs in relation to its effects on cytokines:
In this study, the preparation was being used as part of a study to test the effectiveness of anti-cytokine therapy on atherosclerosis. This was a two-year, double-blind, controlled trial.
It did not find any examples of the preparation causing a cytokine storm or worsening an existing cytokine storm.
Now keep in mind we should not draw conclusions that elderberry would have that effect on its own because we would need to do a clinical trial on elderberry by itself to see if it had that same effect as the compound used in the study.
I reference this study to show one of the only papers we could find that showed the effects of something that contained elderberry on cytokines in live human beings, not test tubes or lab rats.
Often mentioned in the same articles and posts was a theory that kept being repeated, but remember, just because something is repeated over and over does not make it true.
This theory states that because elderberry could sometimes stimulate certain cytokines, it would cause or make worse a cytokine storm in someone.
This theory fails to consider that elderberry, like all herbs, is much more than a single compound.
You have to take into account the effects that all the other compounds in the preparation or plant would have on the body as well.
Someone cannot just decide that only one compound is going to have an effect because it fits their narrative and ignore what all the other compounds do.
Yet, that is exactly what people pushing claims of cytokine storms caused or made worse by elderberry have done.
Even PolitiFact could not find any evidence that elderberry caused or worsened a cytokine storm, and the Facebook page that started and spread this whole nonsense has since been taken down.
You mess with the other plants, and you mess with the Mandrake.
You are probably wondering why I am being so vague and just using the word cytokines and not other terms.
The FDA limits what can be said about herbs and other supplements, So certain words, phrases, and claims cannot be said without getting you into a lot of trouble.
Whether this policy by the FDA is good, bad, or meaningless and why it is this way is a debate for another day and article.
Herbalists care deeply about the people and plants they work with. I, and other herbalists (obviously, there are some bad herbalist eggs, just like in any group), would stop using an herb in a heartbeat if given good evidence that it was dangerous or could be harmful in a way that it was commonly used.
If you or someone you know has properly done human clinical trials showing elderberry causes any of the harmful things being claimed, such as cytokine storms, myself and a whole lot of other people who have been searching for these studies would really love to see them. Please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can see it and pass it along.
Herbs and plants have given tremendous benefits to human beings, and every passing year we discover more amazing things or learn more about the history of an herb.
Scaring people away from using such an incredible herb that has so many benefits to try and score social media points or to inflate your ego is a terrible thing to do, especially if you know that the claims you are making have no actual scientific backing to them.
Is every herb right for every person or in every situation?
Of course not.
Ask any good herbalist, and they could tell you many herbs that would not be appropriate in a particular situation or for a particular person.
For example, you would not want to give licorice to someone with high blood pressure.
This could cause a dangerous spike in blood pressure, leading to a whole host of problems.
What I hope everyone takes away from this article is to stop relying on sound bites and social media for health information. It is simply not set up in a way that can properly convey scientific information properly.
When it comes to internet searching, stick to cat pictures and silly memes.
Have a question about your medication? Ask your doctor or pharmacist.
Have a question about your car? Ask your mechanic.
Have a question about science? Ask Bill Nye, the science guy.
Have a question about an herb? Ask an herbalist.
Having an existential crisis and wanting to know the answer to life, the universe, and everything? The answer is 42. It always has been, and it always will be.
For a great guide on the clinical usage of elderberry, click here.
Here is a little video from our friends at Norms Farms showing some of the elderberries growing on their farm in North Carolina.
Warning: Southern Accent Present
Check out our favorite elderberry syrup here.
This article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor or healthcare practitioner, nor is it meant to be taken as medical advice.