Promising coronavirus research looks at elderberry
Over the past few months our ability to successfully combat COVID-19 with medications has been disappointing. There was some early hope with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. More recent studies strongly suggest no benefit and maybe even increased mortality.
Remdesivir, an anti-viral medication, is showing some benefit in early animal studies. Human studies are underway.
The drawback to medications is that they are utilized once an infection has been established. Ideally, we would want to find something that could prevent or be protective against serious infection.
Some laboratory research suggests elderberry may actively prevent the binding of COVID-like viruses to cells, thus limiting the potential for infection.
All viruses enter the host cell and recruit various mechanisms in the cell to produce viral genetic material (DNA or RNA), manufacture the membranes that coat the virus and stimulate the mechanism for viral release. There are a number of defense therapies that can moderate the effect of a viral infection.
Anti-viral medications usually interfere with the ability of the infected cell to produce viral genetic material. Some natural products prevent the binding of the virus to the host cell. Several compounds found in elderberry, especially caffeic acid, limit the binding of the virus to the host cell.
Elderberry (Sambucus) is a flowering plant found in many parts of the world. Elderberry has been used as a treatment for viral infections and there are more than 50 medical studies in the traditional medical literature. Most of the studies show benefit especially for influenza.
Elderberry fruit and flowers are commonly used in the preparation of supplements and teas. Although processing for consumption is safe, the uncooked berries and other parts of elderberry can be poisonous.
One recent study in the science journal Virus Research demonstrated substantial effect against the coronavirus HCoV-NL63, a cousin to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This research was done in vitro (in test tubes) and not in animals or humans. Nevertheless, the results were impressive.
This study examined the anti-viral properties of several components found in elderberry. The most active component was a molecule called caffeic acid. This molecule was 10 times more effective at preventing virus binding to the host cell than any of the other elderberry molecules examined.
Caffeic acid is found in many plants and seeds. Thyme, spearmint, sage and elderberry have large amounts of caffeic acid. Ceylon cinnamon, sunflower seeds and star anise are also rich in this molecule. Despite the name, caffeic acid is not related to caffeine and coffee does not have very much caffeic acid.
This is not to say elderberry is a proven therapy against COVID-19. However, as a supplement or manufactured tea, it is considered safe. If it does affect COVID-19 binding to host cells in humans, all the more benefit. It is not a substitute for social distancing, hand-washing and masks. Stay safe … this too shall end.
• Dr. Patrick Massey is medical director of complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network, and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village.