Elderberry for Food, Medicine & Health

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” — Hippocrates

As a photography teacher for nineteen years, I was surrounded by sick (as in coughs, colds, mono, flu), and over-tired high school students all winter long. For much of my teaching time my students and I worked closely together in a small unventilated darkroom, examining prints as they emerged from the chemical baths. In such close proximity, why did I not get sick? And why did my students believe they were powerless over their health?

An Introduction to the Power of Mushrooms

Ten years ago, feeling run down and susceptible at the beginning of a new school year, I was introduced to the immunity-boosting power of newly formulated compounded mushroom capsules developed by the brand New Chapter, under the guidance of expert mycologist, Paul Stamets. Identifying the medicinal properties of mushrooms and putting them in capsules was the start of the immune boosting revolution. Back then, the non-specific all systems immune boosting formula was the single product in the line of mushrooms as medicine. Now, your health food store and Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness devote multiple shelves to advanced mushroom formulations targeting immunity, cardio, respiratory, and more. Eventually, Paul Stamets left New Chapter and started his own brand, Host Defense. I recommend both brands for specific and non-specific immune system boosting.

The first six months of ‘relationship building’ with my own immune system provoked a pivotal change in my life. The realization was profound that I could actually influence my overall health by feeding my immune system. Suddenly, my immune system was talking to me and I was tuned in to the message. I had the sensation of being surrounded by a shield of armor. I felt physically protected from all virus and illness. The protection I felt must not have been imagined because I haven’t been sick since – not once in ten years. But don’t take my word for it. My husband travels for work with weekly exposure to airports and planes. Typically, he succumbs to a respiratory illness each winter, but no longer. For many years my daughter suffered from sequential sinus infections every winter, even after undergoing sinus surgery that supposedly cures the problem. But five years ago, she took back her health with immunity boosting foods and supplements, and has been sinus-free ever since.

My Search for Immunity Boosters Widens

Mushroom compounding was my introduction to a huge paradigm shift, in which I reaped the rewards for taking responsibility for my health. Immunity boosting with mushrooms was so empowering I quickly became curious to discover other foods with immune boosting properties. I was also reminded of my grandmother’s lessons on nutrition and her passion for 1950’s health food guru, Adelle Davis, whose mantra was, “You are what you eat.” Today, this mantra is more important than ever, given our skyrocketing health care costs, rampant allergies, asthma, autism, obesity, diabetes and heart disease exhibited by our society. Now, the concept of food as medicine has become personal and political. In the information age, better-educated consumers must weigh their conscience against the long term expensive price tag of choosing cheap ‘fast food’ and supporting giant agro-businesses when they buy their food ‘conveniently’ at big-box grocery stores. Supporting local farmers’ markets and CSA’s, where the food is locally fresh, cleaner and of higher nutritional value affects our health as a nation and our economy. Native American Dr. Tieraona Low Dog puts it this way:

“Medicine is not healthcare. Food is healthcare, medicine is sick-care. It’s time we see it for what it is.”

The era of processed foods and foods that travel thousands of miles from their distribution centers is being re-considered by consumers as the disturbing evidence shows all around us: convenience, and the idea that food should be cheap has a much larger price to pay. That price is seen in our nation of illness, malnourishment and obesity. Finally, ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are words that have become verbs and personal political acts as people seek out the enhanced quality and health benefits offered from farms in their local communities. According to “Trends in Organic Agriculture,” by Heather Omand at MOFGA,

“Total U.S. organic sales posted a new record of $43.3 billion in 2015, the largest dollar gain yet. This is up 11% from 2014 and far surpasses the overall food market growth rate of 3%. Nearly 5% of all food sold in the U.S. in 2015 was organic.”

Heather goes on to say that organic is “better for the economy:”

“Recent research identified 225 U.S. counties as ‘organic hotspots’ – counties with high levels of organic agriculture activity that have neighboring counties with high levels of organic agricultural activity. Organic hotspots boosted median household incomes by more than $2000 and lowered a county’s poverty rate by as much as 1.35% — greater rates than general agricultural activity and even more than major anti-poverty programs.”

And Along Comes Elderberry

Following my discovery of mushroom compounding, and being alerted to the idea of ‘food as medicine,’ I was introduced to the world of elderberry in 2011 by the founders of Maine Medicinal, producers of elderberry syrup in Dresden, Maine. I was accepted as one of eleven students to take part in a year-long elderberry school to encourage elderberry growing in Maine. Fast forward to 2016 at The Bailey Farm, where we just brought in our fourth harvest of elderberry. I am as impressed and evangelical about the immunity boosting power of elderberry as I am about compounded mushrooms. (To see all of my favorite immunity boosting foods, please visit ImmunityFirst.com/BLOG.)

Unlike our more familiar small fruits – blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and grape – elderberry is more complicated. First of all, the berries are tiny – the size of a wild blueberry – and full of seeds. Elderberries don’t have a remarkable mouth-watering flavor, and they have to be processed, or cooked, to reap the health benefits. Furthermore, elderberry is a species of plant that has to be learned and understood, for the roots, leaves, primary stems and seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, known to be toxic if consumed in large enough quantity.

The History of Elderberry

Despite its complexity, all parts of the elderberry plant – even the bark – have been used since ancient times for dyes, medicine, food and drink. Hippocrates called elderberry “the people’s medicine chest,” and it has long been foraged each August and September by Europeans and other native cultures and made into juice, syrup, wine, cordial, tincture, tonics and teas for immune protection against virus, respiratory infections, fevers and colds. Ancient Celtic mythology cites the elderberry plant as “the Protector of the Garden,” which was intuitively prophetic since modern science has shown that the berries actually protect our cells from the marauding free radicals of winter viruses, colds and flu. The elderflower has medicinal benefits too, known to have “soothing and laxative properties and traditionally used to ‘sweat out fever.’” – Elderberry: Botany, Horticulture, Potential.

Elderberry and Immunity

In a scientific study for the treatment of influenza in Israel, 93% of the patients who were given elderberry extract experienced relief from their symptoms after two days, whereas 92% of those who received a placebo took up to six days to recover. Elderberry appears to possess the capacity to activate the immune system by increasing cytokine production. The investigators suspect that it may act as an immunoprotector or immunostimulant and that it may be advantageous to give it in conjunction with chemotherapy in treating immunodepressive cancers and AIDS. (Barak et al. 2001). – Elderberry: Botany,
Horticulture, Potential.

Nutritional science has come a long way in the past ten years (think newly discovered neuroplasticity of the brain, i.e., our thoughts impact the health of our cells), and as the above-mentioned scientific research suggests, elderberry may be useful not only against viruses, but also as a medicine for cancer and AIDS patients. When I take my daily dose of elderberry juice, I feel that same sense of enhanced armored protection I get from compounded mushrooms. My immune system is happy and strong. The flu shot question becomes obsolete.

Elderberries contain abundant quantities of anthocyanins, the pigments that give them their purple color. According to the ORAC RATINGS (measures antioxidant capacity of foods), the antioxidant capacity of these anthocyanins, as well as the levels of Vitamins A, C, B6 and E, calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorous exceed that of all other small fruit berries native to No. America. – www.nutrition-and-you.com/elderberry.html.

Even more compelling is comparing the ORAC RATINGS of all the top small berry fruits worldwide. The top three antioxidant berries are acai, maqui and goji. These berries grow in Central and South America. I have to ask, “How fresh and powerful are those (expensive) exotic berries imported from very far away by the time they reach the shelves of our health food store?” Not nearly as potent as when they are picked fresh off the bush. Below the exotic fruits on ORAC table are aronia (chokeberry) and elderberry, way above the common fruits of blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, etc. Both aronia and elderberry are native to our country, and are in cultivation at The Bailey Farm. It seems obvious to me that the most powerful medicinal berries freshly available to us in this country come from aronia and elderberry. And this is where I become evangelical about the health and immunity boosting power of elderberry: we have them right here, and we don’t need to feel powerless over our health. (The aronia berry is worthy of more discussion, but for the purpose of this article, I am focusing only on elderberry).

FYI: I am not suggesting to forego the other more familiar indigenous berries, but to add in elderberry to your diet.

How to Use Elderberry

So, what do you do with elderberry? How is it processed? In short, the easiest way to capture the most medicinal potency of elderberries is to make pure elderberry juice. See www.TheBaileyFarm.com/RECIPES and come to Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness on 11/30, 5:30-7 pm to learn several processing recipes, and more information about the powerful immunity boosting capabilities of the small and mighty elderberry.

In closing, it is no accident that J.K. Rowling of the famed Harry Potter books chose the mighty elderberry cane for Harry’s magic wand. I have felt the power myself when I use it to herd my chickens, who don’t respond as well, or as quickly as they do when I direct their travel (away from my garden) with my elderberry wand!

About the Author

Abbie Sewall

Abbie Sewall is passionate about photography, writing, elderberry farming and healing. She lives in Freeport with her husband, two barn cats, thirteen chickens and a field of elderberry. Her elderberry is sold to several value-added Maine businesses, to practicing herbalists and individuals committed to taking charge of their health.

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