​​Elderberry and Sugar Combat Viral Infections

Remember those remedies from the old days? At the first sign of a cold or flu, some grandmothers gave out sweetened elderberry syrup. According to recent research at Yale University, that elderberry syrup remedy may be even more potent than we knew.

Should we eat when we have an infection?

Published in the Cell, a science journal, the Yale University study showed that the answer to the old question, “Is it starve a cold, feed a fever — or is it feed a cold, starve a fever?” are both true, and false. It depends on the cause of the infection. Illness commonly causes a loss of appetite — and once the fever starts to rise, food becomes a distant thought. But as the Yale study found out, if you’ve got a viral infection, the role of food is quite different than if you’ve go a bacterial infection.

 The Yale researchers conducted the study on mice. For mice with a bacterial infection — or listeria monocytogenes, when they were fed a meal without sugar, or other carbohydrates that are metabolized to glucose, the mice survived. But when fed a meal containing sugar or other carbohydrates that are metabolized to glucose, they got worse.

On the contrary, for mice infected with an influenza virus, not being fed led to increased mortality, while eating helped them recover.

Essentially, eating food containing sugar made the bacterial infection worse, but protected against lethality of an influenza virus infection. And while the research was done with mice, there is good reason to expect similar results in humans.

Like mice, our bodies undergo physiological changes during an infection. In the case of a bacterial infection, we lose appetite and stop eating. Faced with an absence of glucose, our body starts breaking down lipids instead. It turns out that one of the products of this lipid breakdown are ketone bodies. These molecules work to protect against reactive oxygen species — which cause oxidative stress —and also protect against bacteria. But when we consume foods containing glucose and carbohydrates, the presence of sugar signals the body to stop the fat breakdown, and we lose the protective action of those ketone bodies.

But what about a viral infection? It’s a very different scenario. In the case of viruses, an antiviral inflammation process ensues in the body, which can initiate cell death  — or apoptosis — as a result of inflammation-induced stress. But the presence of glucose stalls the initiation of this cell death, helping the body to better adapt to, and survive, the viral infection.

In other words, that old-fashioned glass of elderberry syrup that many a grandmother offered against respiratory infections was spot on. Recent tests and human studies have shown that elderberry contains powerful flavonoids that have been shown to be potent antiviral compounds. The human study completed and published in 2016 involved 312 people who took a long-distance flight from Australia to overseas. Some of the passengers were given elderberry capsules (produced by Iprona AG, Italy), and some were given a placebo. Those who took the elderberry were less likely to have a cold — and if they did get infected, their illness lasted far shorter (it lasted about a third shorter as in the placebo group), and their symptoms were significantly less severe.

We have to credit our grandmothers, certainly, for what they knew. But combining elderberry with glucose to stave off a viral cold or flu makes even more sense now that we know the science. In viral infections, the glucose has a protective effect against cell death caused by antiviral inflammation. Combine that with the powerful immune support and antiviral effect of elderberry’s potent flavonoids, and that’s a very effective combination against flu or colds indeed.


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