So many snake oil peddlers, so little time.
In “Evidence Based Proof Elderberry Syrup Is Better Than The Flu Shot”,1 Facebook saleswoman “Naturally Nicole” offers up more misinformation on the flu shot than can possibly be debunked in one sitting. In the interest of time, I’ll take on two of the three “scientific studies” she cites to support her flu cure, then come back for more in future articles.
Fasten your seat belts; make sure your tray tables are in a locked and upright position. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
An extract of black elderberries has natural antiviral properties in vitro, and reduced flu symptoms in 3-4 days2
We have an epic failure right off the bat. In layman’s terms, in vitro means the study was performed in a glass test tube or petri dish, not a live human. So how did the elderberry extract reduce flu symptoms in humans?
Answer: it didn’t. This study wasn’t performed on humans, and Nicole & the abstract essentially tell a bald-faced lie. Here’s what happened:
Nicole starts you off with this abstract2 which describes a study performed courtesy of twelve volunteers who donated blood that was treated with elderberry extract in vitro. The humans didn’t have the flu. They didn’t have symptoms. The test was simply to determine if the elderberry triggered an immune response in the extracted cells. If you don’t read the paper behind the abstract, you never learn this vital fact.
It’s only when you read the full text of the study3 that you see the abstract’s reference to a reduction in symptoms isn’t for the study actually being done. This mysterious second paper and the reduction in symptoms in humans is never even mentioned anywhere but the abstract. I have to repeat myself, because it’s so important: the study cited by Nicole never tested a single flu patient, yet she and the abstract claim it reduced symptoms in humans in 3-4 days. Pretty amazing since it was an in vitro test only! (wink wink, nudge nudge.)
I’ve laid it out graphically for you below, and you can follow the results yourself via the hyperlinks in the article to see for yourself how you’re being misled:
As for in vitro testing… that’s a necessary first step, but pushing it as a “cure” as Nicole does is dishonest. My wife and I have a great in vitro germ killer under the kitchen sink:
A “complete cure” was achieved in 2-3 days in 90% of patients receiving elderberry syrup.4
At least we’ve switched to live humans (an in vivo study).
I think the most damning indictment of Nicole comes on the second page of the study that this vehement anti-vaxxer once again apparently didn’t take the time to read:
“Vaccinating those at high risk of influenza-related complications before the influenza season each year is the most effective and most commonly used ways [sic] of reducing the impact of influenza.” 4
That’s right. The very paper Nicole cites recommends the flu vaccine as the most effective way of combating influenza. (This is going to come back to haunt her, because the lead author of this study is also the lead author of the third paper she uses to prop up her product. You’ll never guess what he does for a living!)
So how was this study conducted? Did doctors do something objective, like, I don’t know… record the patients’ temperatures every day? Maybe some bloodwork?
No. Test subjects were asked to record in a diary how they felt. How well did they sleep? Were they coughing more or less?
I’m not making this up.4
Look, I get it: you can’t measure a body ache. But checking for a fever? And Nicole glosses over some facts. Twelve of the patients receiving the elderberry syrup (almost half!) needed a rescue medication during the study, because the syrup wasn’t working for them. It’s true that those in the control group (receiving a placebo) needed the rescue meds at a higher frequency, and recovered somewhat more slowly. But some recovered completely with no elderberry syrup at all, just as fast as those receiving the syrup. So what can you conclude? Well, the authors thought maybe they had something, maybe not, and said:
“These findings need to be confirmed in a larger study” 4
Nicole seems to have missed all of this.
Coming Up Next Time
In part 2 of this series, we’ll look at Nicole’s third study, a “switcheroo” piece that would have made Harry Houdini proud. Our Doctor of Syrup quotes from the abstract of a $51 per-view paper hidden behind a paywall–a paper that has some hidden surprises in it.
A paper Nicole very clearly didn’t read. It looks like this:
Naturally Nicole screen snapshots and product image captures are used in strict compliance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of United States copyright law (commonly known as “fair use law”). This material is distributed without profit with the intent to provide commentary, review, education, parody, and increase public health knowledge.
Bloom County/Opus image is used within parody constraints of Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of United States copyright law (commonly known as “fair use law”). This material is distributed without profit with the intent to provide commentary, review, education, parody, and increase public health knowledge.
Obfuscated image in closing sequence of “Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama. J Altern Complement Med. 1995 Winter;1(4):361-9. Zakay-Rones Z1, Varsano N, Zlotnik M, Manor O, Regev L, Schlesinger M, Mumcuoglu M.” used to provide commentary, review, and increase public health knowledge as provided under Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of United States copyright law (commonly known as “fair use law”).
(1) Evidence Based Proof, Elderberry Syrup Is Better Than The Flu Shot
(2) The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines. (ABSTRACT)
Eur Cytokine Netw. 2001 Apr-Jun;12(2):290-6.
Barak V1, Halperin T, Kalickman I.
(3) The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines. (FULL TEXT)
Eur Cytokine Netw. 2001 Apr-Jun;12(2):290-6.
Barak V1, Halperin T, Kalickman I.
(4) Randomized Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections
The Journal of International Medical Research
2004; 32: 132 – 140
Z ZAKAY-RONES , E THOM , T WOLLAN AND J WADSTEIN
I have been raising kids for 16 years now, i would know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. The flu shot does NOT work, and is toxic. (the ONLY year i had the flu was the year i took the flu shot). Elderberry works as a preventative as well as slows the virus from spreading.
There’s nothing toxic about the flu shot. If your anectodal evidence about 16 years of kids was evidence, my decades of taking the shot would be just as much evidence it’s safe. But personal stories don’t really matter.
Nicole offers up a bunch of “studies” to back her claim (and yours) that elderberry works against the flu virus. I showed that she lied about one of them, and flaws in the other. You never mentioned this.
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Personal stories do matter, To me and to many others. Scientific studies backed by agencies and corporations with a deceptive agenda don’t matter.
Thankfully they don’t matter in the world of science. You and Nicole more or less acknowledge this by trying to cite “scientific” studies to support her elderberries.
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Elderberries most certainly have healing properties and it has been proven time and time again by science. This is absurd.
What is absurd and what proof, Callie? It’s hard to address claims without knowing what they are. Nicole made 3; two of them were addressed in the post you’re commenting on. One of them was an outright lie and the other didn’t do a single thing (not even take a patient’s temperature) other than ask the patients to judge how they were feeling.
The third study she cited, which I didn’t talk about yet, is behind a $51 pay wall but I have a copy and am writing about it now. It is nine pages long. It discusses a clinical trial but, like her second study, cites results from a completely different trial in the abstract (which is all she bothered to read).
So I’m not sure what proof you’re talking about. I only wrote about the claims she made.
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Heck, if it cured zombies on the Walking Dead, it has to work against the flu!
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I’m curious when this other story is going to be up?
I can hardly wait to read it.
Hi Lisa. Thank you for the well-deserved prod. I have a draft sitting in my queue and vacation coming up, would be a lovely time to finish it off. I got a little side tracked. Thanks so much for reading and keeping me on the straight and narrow!
Hi Mark, I am also looking forward to part 2 of this, when you get around to it!
Thanks Dan! I thought I’d wait for flu season in hopes of garnering more interest. I think I found some info Nicole would rather the general public not know 🙂
Part 2 is now up, with many apologies for the delay:
Part 2 is now up, with great embarrassment over the delay:
Your not very bright and lying saying it is not toxic, if you read the ingredients in flu shots you would not put it in your blood stream but then again it must of reached your brain cells.
Which part of it is toxic Tonja?
Toxic? Read the package insert that often consists of 8 pages printed in 4 point text. There are many more studies indicating the effectiveness of herbal antivirals than the few cited. Just Google – NIH elderberry flu for yourself. I have been using elderberry for flu for 25 years myself. In fact I have not yet found one single virus that there is not an effective herbal supplement available for. Ever heard of a little science called ethnopharmacology? That’s what the pharmaceutical industry uses every day to find new molecules to patent. Ethnobotany just skips that step and goes straight for the answers already provided by nature.
I think the scientists studying HIV and Ebola would be shocked to hear that elderberry has been shown to be so effective in your studies. This is an eye opener for me as well, having read what I believed to be the only three existing elderberry studies related to the flu (headed by a doctor who admits the flu vaccine should be the first line of defense), and the studies were inconclusive 😔
Mark, we are trying to figure out if this Elderberry thing has anything real behind it. What do you think of this review article?
Click to access 02e7e534e9f25f02b4000000.pdf
It concludes e.g. “good scientific evidence” for efficacy fighting flu.
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I get Nicole oversold the elderberry studies. And I get it’s not a good idea to advise people to not to get a flu shot. However there is no need for condescending snark.
There are no known cures for influenza or colds. The flu shot is not 100% effective at prevention and it’s efficacy varies year by year. Although it is definitely the best prevention to date, it is also a billion dollar industry. Elderberries are not and no one is willing to fund studies. However, it’s “rumored” healing power has remained consistent since Hippocrates. There are scientific papers reviewing and validating elderberries’ antiviral/antiflu properties however more research is needed. Be realistic, studies will most likely never materialize as there is no profit to be made.
How about people get the flu shot every year and keep some elderberry syrup on hand for those many years the flu shot is a poor match? After all, nature created the flu and nature created elderberries.
Thanks for reading and commenting Jen. I must strongly disagree that “there is no profit to be made” if elderberries proved to be an effective cure. The pharmaceutical companies would be all over it. Influenza is so prevalent, dangerous, and difficult to treat that the first company with a truly effective cure would reap a fortune. Sadly, the very few elderberry studies that have been done have shown no efficacy and, in the case of Naturally Nicole, my snark came from the way she misrepresented those poorly done studies. She went so far as to misread an abstract and place the study in the wrong country.
I admit to a dose of snark and sarcasm in my blog, and confess it’s intentional. I try to reserve it for those who are truly doing harm to the public, such as “Naturally Nicole”.
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I tried checking to see if you ever posted the follow-up to this, but didn’t see it.
Thanks for de-bunking these ridiculous claims. As someone who studied science, I can say right now that one or two studies alone do not mean people should hitch their wagons to the results and conclusions — especially when it comes to potentially life-threatening conditions. Furthermore, (mis)interpretations of those results and conclusions by ill-informed, biased laymen just exacerbate the problem.
Also, it drives me nuts when people can’t admit that the placebo effect might affect them, too, or that perhaps their illness was of a shorter duration than others’.
Regarding the people who say they got the flu shot and still got the flu, there’s a very good chance their fly may have been WORSE had they not had the flu shot, not to mention that the flu shot is developed preemptively, and thus may be less effective against certain strains from one year to the next.
And I agree, if elderberry is that effective, pharmaceutical companies would be ALL over it.
Thank you for reading and commenting Polly. My apologies; I have had a draft of Part 2 sitting on my virtual desk for quite a while now. Some of the studies Nicole referenced were behind paywalls and I had to slowly build up the budget to buy them (I don’t accept advertising and contrary to popular belief I don’t get a weekly check from Monsanto or the pharmaceutical industry 🙂 ). Anyway, with flu season being here, I really do need to finish Part 2. After I read the studies, it became clear the Nicole only read the abstracts.
You hit the nail on the head with your comments about the vaccine, the placebo effect, and so much more. One of my pet peeves about the anti-flu vaccine crowd is they set up the straw man argument that the vaccine is supposed to be 100% effective, when nobody makes such a claim. Then they run quickly down the rabbit hole from there 😦
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Looking forward to Pt.II… *ahem*
🙂 Thank you and yes, I have pulled it out of the queue and am typing feverishly (no flu pun intended)!
It’s up (with a very red-faced author behind it 🙂 )
Well I comes down to the health of our children or money in some ones pocket…
I will go with personal trials..
We all have that right to try alternative methods..at least for now…but it is slipping away fast.
Check out …we are vaxxed…
I would ask all of us who take any medicine or vaccination to read the insert that comes inside of the box first…
Maybe Doctor and nurses should too.
I don’t mean this as a slam but we trust too much.
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Mark, your method of discrediting someone is worse than the author’s sloppy reporting. You seem to think that making some super-inflammatory statements, together with ridiculing and making fun of the author, constitute an informed and well thought out rebuttal. They do not. There is some very well researched data from credentialed scientists and institutions on the internet about the elderberry plant and its effect on flu symptoms and even on certain neurological symptoms. Did you bother to search for and study it before you started your late night stand-up debunking routine?
Thank you for reading and commenting. In my post, I pointed out that
(1) Nicole cited a study that was in vitro, not in vivo, and the abstract of the study Nicole cites was a bait and switch. No testing was done on human. You asked me if I read any studies. YES, I did. Did you?
(2) The second study Nicole cites very clearly says that the best defense against the flu IS THE FLU VACCINE. Further, the study in question did not objectively measure outcomes, it simply ASKED patients how they felt on a scale of 1-10. In other words, they didn’t even take the patient’s temperature. Does this sound legit to you?
I’d love to continue this discussion and look forward to your reply.
I am a nurse practitioner. I have used elderberry (in capsule form) on family members who had influenza. (I know what is and is not influenza). Within 24 hours they had immense improvement in their symptoms.
The problem with relying solely on double blinded, placebo-controlled studies is the big pharma pays for most of them. There is more than a little evidence that they only publish what is favorable.
Secondly, there is a dearth of studies on natural remedies (and I’m not saying they all work) because it takes MONEY to run studies. And, you can’t replicate mother nature and put it in a pill. Mother nature changes with the environment. There is no money to be made by big pharma because you can’t replicate mother nature. So, it can’t be mass produced.
And, even if you mass produce, you need the whole of what the plant offers, not just a component of it.
The best cure is prevention.
Thanks for reading and commenting Terri.
Are you familiar with the Appeal to Nature fallacy? All plants are just chemicals. “Big Pharma” uses plants as a source for medicines all the time.
And why would you need the whole plant?
I’m confused, are you simply debunking her claims or that elderberry has any viable affect upon influenza?
So what say you of this in vivo study?
“The results of the present study clearly show the in vivo efficacy of elderberry in suppressing viral replication and stimulating the immune response (Figs. 2 and 3). The animal experiments show that CJ-E did not significantly increase the titer of the neutralizing antibody in the BALF samples of mice when it was administered at doses of 1 and 5mg/d (Figs. 3 and 5). At a dose of 10 mg/d, however, the juice caused a significant increase in the antibody titer of the BALF samples as shown in Fig. 5. These results might have been due to a dose-dependent effect of CJ-E on stimulating the immune functions.”
Did I debunk your bad science?
WOW YOU ARE AN IDIOT. THAT’S MY SCIENTIFIC RESULTS. SAMBUCOL WITH ELDERBERRY’S WORKS WONDERS FOR COLD AND FLU AT THE ONSET,IT BOOSTS YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM AND SHORTENS THE DURATION OF A COLD OR FLU,I USED IT,IT WORKS.
That sure sounds scientific to me 😉
If I relied on those who rely completely on “scientific” premise to determine diagnosis and treatment I would probably not be here right now. Being told that I did not have Lyme Disease after a test that they relied on to determine the disease left me undiagnosed and untreated for many years. AND, when I finally did get properly tested and showed evidence of Borrelia Burgdorferi bacteria in my body (now a chronic infection), as well as a myriad of other viruses and bacteria who were preying on my body, I was then told by those who rely on “science” that Chronic Lyme Disease does not exist and that because I never had a bulls-eye rash (only present in 40% of cases) that I did not have Lyme Disease even though my blood work showed the tail of the organism, among other things. Anyway, I’ve had to rely on “Naturally Nicole” type people who have shared valuable, health fortifying and life saving information that has helped save my life and given me a quality of life that the MD’s were not able nor willing to offer me. I just used Elderberry syrup last week for the first cold that I have gotten in 5 years. I started with my Silver and essential oils, but it wasn’t until I started taking the Ederberry that I started feeling better almost immediately. We have relied on natural treatments such as Elderberry to keep our family of 8 healthy, and in the rare occurrence of sickness we have relied on them to treat and help us to recover – usually very quickly- all to the glory of God who gave me the wisdom and grace to find the information about the wonderful natural things that He has provided for us here on earth to help with our ailments. But then I don’t rely on science for my faith in God either, but I know he has healed me much deeper than even Elderberry could even touch. Good day!
There have been actual human studies done on elderberry. 2 I specifically know of. One of elderberry versus a placebo and one of elderberry versus tamiflu. Both found elderberry to be more effective.
I’ve used it on myself and children for a few years now and it’s really quite incredible. Confirmed flu last year in my eldest- fever broke in less than 24 hours and he had no worse than cold symptoms and by day 4. was basically 100%. This year all three of my children and myself had it flu type A. Fevers broke around the 24-36 hour mark for each of us. Symptoms moving forward were mild. A cough for my self and my middle child, a slight cough for my eldest and congestion for my daughter (youngest). All of us were pretty much back to normal by day 4- and that’s with me getting almost no sleep for days…
So anyway you are absolutely entitled to your opinion’s… And it is fine for you to keep putting down natural remedies… But they have a place and they have a time and I highly encourage you to look at the studies that have been done in regards to elderberry because there have been studies. 🤷🏻♀️
Here’s one just for reference
Thanks for reading and commenting Laura. I’m aware there have been human studies; I actually debunked a couple in the series of articles on which you’re commenting. Thank you also for the link you sent. I assume you understand that this study did not conclude that elderberry was effective against the flu? It noted that it “seemed” to help and suggested large scale studies would be helpful. Do you have references to such studies by any chance?
It isn’t my opinion that these syrups are bunk. It’s a fact that nobody has proven they help, and that the best line of defense is immunization.
Elderberry syrup is a miracle! I don’t care about studies. I KNOW what works for me. Interestingly in 2015 and again this year I caught the flu. It was verified by tests and my symptoms were not lying. This year I took elderberry syrup and within 48 hours of taking it, my fever broke and my symptoms were mild. Before that they were horrendous. I’m one of those who gets sick easily. I had double pneumonia, a collapsed lung and a staph infection as a child. I’ve had A LOT of respiratory infections and this is the first time I did not suffer after taking the elderberry syrup. I’m an RN that has seen plenty of patients suffer from big pharma. The flu shots didn’t work for me but elderberry sure has! I don’t need any “proof” what works for me! My proof is going back well to take care of my patients. Lol.
Science doesn’t care what you believe kjgirl, so “knowing” it works for you doesn’t really mean anything. What else ya got?