01/19/2016 01:22 EST | Updated 01/19/2017 05:12 EST

Fight Cold And Flu The Natural Way With Elderberry

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Sad woman with cold or flu blowing her nose with a tissue under autumn rain. Brunette female sneezing and wearing warm clothes against cold weather. Illness, depression and allergy concept.

News of the upcoming flu season includes an unsettling statistic: as of early November only 39 per cent of the U.S. population had gotten a flu vaccine, according to the Center for Disease Control.

One reason is that flu season has been relatively mild so far this year, but that's likely to change. An annual research project forecasts that flu season is likely to peak in February, as the temperature drops and the air becomes more cold and dry. How can we protect ourselves from this inevitable onslaught of flu and colds? One proven, natural way is with regular doses of elderberry, a fruit known for its health-giving and preventative powers since ancient times.

Recent studies have confirmed that elderberry can bolster immunity, counter flu and cold symptoms, and is particularly beneficial when dealing with respiratory infections. While synthetic pharmaceuticals focus on dealing with infections after they have developed -- and may have negative side effects as well -- elderberry has natural stopping power.

The fruit's potency lies in the pigments that give the berry its nearly black color. The darker the color, the richer the pigments, scientists have found -- which means that these dark fruits -- particularly in the European Haschberg variety of black elderberry -- are filled with natural healing power. Formed in groups of molecular chains known as anthocyanins, these pigments have been found to be capable of preventing viruses from reproducing and infecting new cells. They also kill many of the bacteria that cause chest and respiratory infections.

A recent two-year study conducted in Australia (soon to be published) found that extract from the European elder (Sambucus nigra L.) also shortened the duration of cold and flu symptoms. When a group of long-distance air travelers were divided into two groups, with one (154 people) taking a placebo and the other (158 people) taking a propriety elderberry extract, the group given elderberry showed far better results.

After taking daily doses of 600 to 900 milligrams of elderberry extract for 15 days, they showed half the rate of respiratory infection, reported being sick for only half as long, and had symptoms that were half as severe as those who did not take the extract. Moreover, they also reported better health overall.

The study's findings verified with modern science what centuries of healing traditions have long understood about elderberry's impact on colds and flu. But the Australian study was also noteworthy as it factored in the atmosphere of airplanes -- cold, and dry. The same environment has been shown to play a role in our vulnerability to colds and flu as well.

It turns out that the colder and drier the air, the more susceptible we are to respiratory infections. As we come into contact with cold air -- whether by breathing it in or via skin contact -- our core temperature is reduced. As a result, the blood vessels in the protective mucous tissues of our respiratory system constrict -- and that makes it more difficult for the immune system to respond to invading bacteria and viruses.

A recent study also found that cool, dry air also allows cold and influenza viruses to survive longer outside the body than they do during summery conditions. An apt example is found in a simple sneeze. One sneeze produces about 40,000 droplets of mucous, which exit the mouth and nose at 62 miles an hour and can travel a distance of 52 feet.

A virus contained in droplets can survive for up to 24 hours if it lands on a hard surface in a cold and dry environment with an ambient temperature of about 41 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity between 35 to 50 per cent. In these conditions, the rate in which colds and influenza are passed from one individual to another thus increases significantly.

Given these findings, seeking natural preventatives and health-boosting options seems more pertinent than ever. And given that there are up to five million cases of severe respiratory illness in the world in a given year, according to the World Health Organization, it may be a good time to turn to nature's pharmacy. So the next time you hear a sneeze (or a cough) nearby, consider adding elderberry to your medicine cabinet, and you'll be well prepared for the coming season.

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