How to Boost Immunity with Elderberry and Zinc
Nobody wants to get sick, yet it sometimes feels inevitable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were over 39 million cases of the flu in 2019.
If you don’t want to be one of the 1 in 5 Americans who gets the flu every year, or suffer from the average of 2-3 colds per year that most adults face, you might be wondering what you can do to boost your immunity.
Studies suggest that both elderberry and zinc supplements have the power to strengthen our immune systems. Read on to learn more about how you can boost your immunity and prevent illness by combining these potent supplements.
Elderberry and Immunity
The berries of the Elder plant have been used since 400 B.C. – beginning with the founder of modern medicine, Hippocrates -- as a natural remedy for illness. But does science support the traditional use of elderberry?
In short, yes! Modern elderberry supplements have been widely studied as prevention strategy for the cold and flu, with promising results.
A 2001 study found that one elderberry-based product activated the production of inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines – made by a type of white blood cell called a T-cell -- are signaling molecules that activate the body’s immune system.
Elderberry can also be used to help us fight the flu. In a 2004 study, a group of researchers administered 15 mL of elderberry syrup to patients sick with the flu for five days. When given within 48 hours of symptom onset, elderberry helped these patients recover an average of four days earlier than the control group. Patients given elderberry also needed less additional medication to relieve their flu symptoms.
Zinc and Immunity
Another widely touted natural remedy for colds and flu is the mineral zinc. Humans consume zinc through dietary sources like whole grains and dairy products – but there is evidence to suggest that supplementing with zinc can help prevent you from getting sick.
We know that zinc plays an important role in the immune system. When we are deficient in zinc, phagocytosis – or the ingestion of foreign invaders by immune cells – is inhibited. The body is also less able to kill off cells that have been invaded by bacteria or viruses, and produces fewer cytokines, weakening the body’s immune system.
Many people are affected by a mild zinc deficiency, especially those who are food insecure or vegetarian/vegan. The consequences of zinc deficiency are of special importance to women, who require adequate zinc intake to sustain a healthy pregnancy. However, anyone’s immune system could suffer from a deficiency of zinc.
A lack of zinc negatively impacts our immune system, but zinc supplementation positively impacts it as well. At doses higher than 75 mg per day, zinc supplements have been found to reduce the duration and severity of the common cold by up to 48 percent.
It’s important to note that you should not take high doses of zinc for long periods of time. The Tolerable Upper Intake level – the maximum amount you should consume per day -- of zinc is 40 mg for adults. Taking more than 40 mg of zinc per day for long periods of time can lead to unpleasant side effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. However, used for less than two weeks at a time, high doses of zinc are safe – and, when we are sick, can give our immune system a much-needed boost.
Combining Elderberry and Zinc
Many supplements that are marketed as strengthening our immune systems combine both elderberry and zinc into one super-supplement. Taking elderberry and zinc as one supplement may help you harness the benefits of both. But is it safe to take these remedies together?
Zinc and elderberry have minimal side effects when taken by healthy adults and appear to be safe when combined. However, the best way to know for sure whether elderberry and zinc supplements are right for you is to get in touch with your doctor. A medical provider can make recommendations based on your personal health history, including what medications you are currently taking, to let you know if zinc and elderberry are right for you.
Barak et. al. (2001). The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines. European Cytokine Network, 12(2). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11399518/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019, March 18). Common Cold. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/common-cold/index.html
National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (2020, April 17). 2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm
Prasad, A. (2008). Zinc in Human Health: Effect of Zinc on Immune Cells. Molecular Medicine, 14(5-6). https://molmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.2119/2008-00033.Prasad
Rao, G, Rowland, K. (2011). Zinc for the common cold – not if, but when. The Journal of Family Practice, 60(11). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273967/
Zakay-Rones et. al. (2004). Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. Journal of Internal Medicine Research, 32(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/147323000403200205