Nature’s Medicine Chest: Elderberry

The subject of this article has appeared in this column a few times in the past ten years, but its importance never seems to get old.  Especially now, in this stressful holiday season, our immune systems may be compromised so it’s the perfect scenario to come down with the flu.  If you aren’t up to date on natural cold and flu remedies, (even Dr. Oz is mentioning this remedy), or even if you are, it’s never a bad idea to know what natural product is of use when we do come down with a runny nose, aches and chills, sore throats, or just a sickly lack of energy.  Throughout the years, whenever I am exposed to seasonal illness or feel that I “might be coming down with something”, my go-to remedy always contains elderberry.

Ancient folklore has given the plant Elder, and its berries, almost magical properties. In the British Isles, elder bushes/trees are said to be the home of one of the most powerful of all faeries, Hylde-Moer, and the English referred to elder as “nature’s medicine chest”.  Although elderberry’s curative abilities are perhaps not magical, they are truly impressive and effective.

According to many modern virologists, this little plant may be one of the best combatants of the flu virus known. The modern Elder plant possesses medicinal properties that act as a blood cleanser, diuretic, anti-inflammatory agent and a mild laxative.  It has been used successfully for such conditions as bronchitis, common cold and influenza symptoms, coughs and fevers, neuralgia and sciatica, as well as rheumatism and skin disorders.

Two of the compounds found in elder protect the liver against free-radical damage.  Other compounds have anti-microbial qualities.  Elderberry works as a simple cleanser and antioxidant that often can stop health problems before they get a chance to start.

Containing substances called Sambucus nigra agglutinins (SNAs), elderberry locks receptor sites on certain strains of flu viruses, keeping them from infecting our cells.

Often flu strains send out enzyme spikes to dissolve the walls of healthy cells, permitting access to the cells by the virus.  Compounds in elderberry thwart this process, keeping the cells from infection from at least eight strains of human influenza virus.

This powerhouse of the herb kingdom contains essential fatty acids Omega 3, 6, and 9, sterols (powerful immune system boosters), vitamin C, and flavonoids like rutin and quercitin, as well as other naturally occurring chemicals that activate a healthy immune system.

In clinical trials, elderberry syrup was tested against 10 different influenza viruses in vitro and it immobilized and prevented many strains of the viruses from penetrating healthy cells and replicating.  When tested on subjects with the flu, participants who received elderberry syrup were relieved of symptoms on average four days earlier than the group without supplementation.

A study in Israel determined that elderberry extract activates a healthy immune system by increasing cytokine production.  Cytokines, hormone-like proteins secreted by our cells, regulate the immune response, so they not only reduce symptoms, but also stimulate antibody protection in the body.

Elderberry has been proven effective against 8 strains of influenza, a stronger performance than any vaccine for combating viruses.  Also studied for use in treatment of HIV, Epstein-Barr and herpes viruses, elderberry is a gentle herb that can used safely for long periods, as it maintains a constant vigilance against any invading germ without harming the body.

In Europe, elderberry is considered an herb of longevity and is used as a “resistance enhancing” tonic.  For all these reasons, elderberry is a safe and smart choice for the elderly, children, or anyone with special care needs.

Available in teas, lozenges, syrups and extracts, as well as pill form, elderberry is an effective and invaluable ally during cold and flu season.  Whether you find elderberry in combination with Echinacea, zinc, vitamin C, goldenseal, boneset, lomatium, grapefruit seed extract or other immune system boosters, elderberry packs a punch against colds and flu.  However you take it, just make sure some derivative of elderberry is in your medicine cabinet this season, and all year round.


Gout Remedies

Apologies to my readers for repeating column subjects, but when six people in one week come in for remedies for the same affliction, it might be time to talk about it again.  Gout.  Chronic pain.  Recurrent flare-ups.  If you’ve ever had an attack of gout, you never want to have another one. While millions of people live with arthritis pain, of which gout is one, gout creates excruciating, abrupt onset pain that feels like someone’s mercilessly jabbing body parts with an ice pick.  Then there’s the swelling, the heat, the inability to walk, and often the mystery of what’s causing the problem.

Gout occurs when there is too much uric acid in the body and when not treated, can sometimes lead to kidney stones.  Normally, a group of chemicals called purines are metabolized in the body, turned into uric acid, and excreted through the urine.  With imbalance, the body doesn’t produce enough uricase, the digestive enzyme responsible for metabolizing purines, and uric acid accumulates in the blood and tissues.  It then crystallizes into needle-shaped deposits, which stick themselves in the joints, especially the big toe.  This hurts.  A lot.

As an alternative to drugs, there is natural relief.  Cherries, celery, and a change of diet and lifestyle habits can all remedy gout as well as prevent other attacks.  Cherry and celery extract are available in pill form as well as in juice, although you have to juice your own celery stalks, and many sufferers have found relief by eating at least half a pound of cherries a day, but this might cause diarrhea or cramping.

Cherries contain the xanthine oxidase inhibitors anthocyanadins and proanthocyanidins.  These flavonoids, like quercitin, folic acid, grape seed and pine bark, act like Allopurinol, the chemical drug prescribed for gout, by preventing the conversion of purines to uric acid.  The can both prevent and remedy a gout attack.

95 per cent of gout sufferers are men over the age of 30, and most of them usually know what triggers an attack.  A huge steak, bacon, or too many beers can turn a burly, tough-as-nails guy into a penitent man of moderation.  Meat, particularly organ meat, is high in purines, and alcohol inhibits uric acid secretion by the kidneys.  Combined, these two dietary factors are a painful duo. 

A change of diet and lifestyle can help with gout attacks.  Eliminating meat and alcohol, achieving ideal body weight, drinking lots of quality water, limiting intake of caffeine and sugar, as well as rich fatty and sweet foods, all help reduce gout recurrences.  Cleansing with herbs, or going on a raw foods diet or a juice fast can also hasten healing and eliminate pain.  If you feel your diet is a good one, with lots of water and green vegetables, and you still get gout, look at any medications you’re taking and see if “arthritis symptoms” are a side effect. 

Herbally, burdock decreases swelling around the joints and acts as a blood purifier.  It clears the kidneys of excess wastes, including uric acid, and increases the flow of urine.  Celery neutralizes body acidity and can be juiced, or celery seed can be taken in capsule form or made into a tea and used as an anti-inflammatory.  Devil’s claw, like burdock, cleanses the blood and joints of toxins, and especially removes uric acid from the system.  It can be used during acute gout attacks since it also acts as an anti-inflammatory.  Finally, the sulfur present in garlic detoxes the blood of lead, which has been implicated in cases of gout.

Homeopathically, nux vomica helps when gout is accompanied by an acid stomach and the sufferer has overindulged in rich foods or alcohol.  Belladonna can help when there is a burning and painful throbbing and the affected joint is swollen and red.  Rhus tox is useful when the big toe is painful, swollen, and the pain is relieved by movement; calcarea fluorica is indicated when there are deformed joints that crack when moved.

You can prevent and remedy gout naturally with attention to diet and lifestyle.  A low purine diet, cleansing the body, and using supplements can prevent and eliminate recurrences.  If you have blood sugar problems, be aware that eight ounces of black cherry juice contain 44 grams of carbohydrates; two pills, containing the equivalent of 16 oz. of juice, have only one gram. 

Find the gout remedy that is best for you and get out of pain.


Dealing with Holiday Stress

The holidays are a challenging time of year.  We want to be joyful; it is the season of light, of gift giving, of receiving loving thoughts, of good food and good friends.  Yet it can also be a time of melancholy, stress, financial anxiety, and emptiness.  We all want to “get into the spirit”, but may find ourselves wrestling with feelings that drag us down, flatten us with their demands and make us feel like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

How can we not just survive the holidays, but thrive through them?  If we find our heads and bodies spinning from the requirements of friends and family, if we are the center of the circus and all eyes are on us to prepare and deliver the greatest Christmas ever, what can we do to stay healthy and happy throughout it all?

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me some suggestions for staying strong and upbeat during the holidays, and it got me thinking about ways I stay (relatively) sane.  My friend’s hints (from inspirational speaker Martha Beck) involve disconnecting from the fray for a while, something that seems radical and almost impossible in a culture that keeps us plugged in 24/7.  So if you feel like you’re at the end of the whip on ice skates, consider these:

Hide.  Do you get in the tub and lock the bathroom door, even for 20 minutes?  Do you say you’re going out for milk, and end up driving around for half an hour just so no one can talk to you?  If not, try doing this now.  Don’t let the demands find you.

To achieve the above suggestion, you might have to, dare I say it, turn off the cell phone.  Yikes.  Is this unimaginable?  What about not checking email, Facebook, not tweeting, messaging, nothing???  Do all your responsibilities, like getting back to people, make you cranky in the midst of all the other holiday demands?  Unplug for half a day, a few hours?  Just try it, and breathe.

Refuse to get sucked into every acquaintance’s drama.  Are they sucking the life and energy out of you?  Can you screen your calls, say someone else is on the line, say the stove is boiling over and you have to go?  Seriously, which relationships exhaust you, which ones make you laugh?  Decide, and in the process, create more time for those that bring you joy.

Toughen up.  If you listen to someone’s whining about long lines at the post office, or how bad the weather is, become insensitive.  If saying “so what” seems too rude for you, put on your Pollyanna hat and say “at least we still have the Uptown Post Office to come to”, or “at least we don’t live in Minnesota”.  Gratitude for even the small gifts of our lives goes a long way to lift our spirits daily.

Lighten up.  This is the time of year when the days get longer (right before Christmas, as a matter of fact), so let’s cooperate with the season.  Instead of watching violent TV shows or deep discussions on the state of our country’s economy and health care system, rent stupid movies, or go sledding, or make cookies.  Laugh, breathe, give us all a break.

Let simplicity heal us.  In my opinion, there is nothing more therapeutic, invigorating, delightful, and sacred than nature.  It doesn’t have to work to get our attention; it’s glorious without effort, majestic, inspiring, uplifting and free.  Get out under a gorgeous Montana sunrise, or equally stunning sunset.  Watch what nature can deliver without our making it happen.

Years ago, I figured out:  when in doubt, walk the dog.  Get out there, stroll, breathe, let nature fulfill its function, and while you’re out there, in the silence, with the cell phone turned off:  Ask for help, say thank you, and be amazed.

We can celebrate the season, truly, by stopping the world for a short time, getting off and luxuriating in nothing.  We don’t need new toys, more things, or frenetic activity to feel alive and joyful.  We can simply observe the beauty in life without the interference and complication of static noise and negativity.  Do yourself a favor this season:  don’t settle for anything inferior; give yourself the priceless gifts of peace and gratitude.