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Discussing elderberry: what it is and what do studies say about its effectiveness in preventing and treating cold and flu

The newest issue (January 2021) of Today’s Dietitian magazine arrived in the mail recently and one of the articles went over elderberry. Elderberry is a natural remedy that has been suggested to help prevent and treat cold and flu. With flu season here and COVID-19, many people are looking into this solution, so it’s been a hot topic!

One thing I particularly appreciate about the article is that it reviewed published studies on elderberry, as do many articles published by Today’s Dietitian. As you know, there is a ton of information on nutrition, some that are evidence-based and others that make you wonder if it’s too good to be (if it does, then it probably is too good to be true). Knowing who and what to trust can be challenging. It’s important to find credible sources and as a clinician, I’m committed to providing information that’s based on science, not fads or quackery. If you have questions on this, send me a message.

In this post, I want to share the key highlights from the article and help you understand more about elderberry. I will be referencing Today’s Dietitian’s article in magazine Vol. 23 No. 1, “Elderberry: Is it really efficacious in the prevention and treatment of the cold, flu, and COVID-19?”

What is elderberry?

Elderberry is “the dark purple berry of the European or black elder tree. It grows in warm areas of Europe, North America, Asia, and North America.”

What highlighted nutrients does it contain?

– Phenolic compounds, particularly anthocyanins that give the berry its dark blue/purple color, similar to blueberries and blackberries
– Flavonoids such as quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulating effects

Takeaway

– “There have been several small, company-funded clinical studies that have suggested elderberry may reduce the symptoms and shorten the duration of the cold and flu, but a study not company funded didn’t show benefit.”
– In September 2020, a large study evaluated if elderberry extract decreases severity and duration of the flu. The results showed no difference in severity or duration of symptoms between elderberry and placebo.
– Elderberry has also been suggested to help improve cardiovascular disease (CVD) biomarkers, however there is a lack of evidence to support this claim.
– There seems to be uncertainty of the level of compound needed to determine elderberry’s efficacy due to the inconsistent amount of extract used in several of the small, company-funded studies.
– “Currently, there are no published studies that have evaluated the use of elderberry in the treatment of COVID-19.” – What this translates to is, it’s not safe to take elderberry supplements for COVID-19 without fact-checking and checking with a provider. Elderberry may actually harmful to the those with COVID-19 due to the immunological actions of elderberry, one of which causes the release of cytokines and studies have suggested a link between increased cytokines and acute respiratory distress in COVID-19 patients.
There is inconsistent researching findings on the efficacy of elderberry to prevent and treat colds and flu.
– Bottom line: There is no magic bullet and no diet or supplement can replace a healthy diet consisting of whole foods with natural antioxidants, immune-stimulating vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.

Nutrition terminology you should know

Have you found yourself confused when reading nutrition articles or looking at labels on food products? While this list does not cover the full extent of nutrition terminology, these are a few of the most common nutrition terms to know. Familiarizing yourself with these may help you make more informed food decisions and also help prepare for discussions with your provider and/or dietitian.

Blood Glucose: Also known as blood sugar. Glucose is the main sugar in the body that is derived from food.

Carbohydrates: Also referred to as carbs. Carbohydrates are one of the three main nutrient groups. They are the primary source of energy by breaking down into glucose for the body to use as energy.

DASH Diet: DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It is an eating plan that focuses on foods that help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. It recommends limiting high sodium foods, sugar and saturated fat and encourages more foods rich in potassium, fiber and protein in the diet.

Digestion: This is the process in which food and liquid are moved through your GI tract, food and liquids are then broken into smaller parts. Once foods are broken down, the body can absorb and move nutrients to parts of the body to store or use.

Diuretic: It is a substance that increases production of urine and promotes removal of fluids in the body. An example of a natural diuretic is caffeine.

Electrolytes: Electrolytes are essential minerals in body fluids. They include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride. This term is often associated with dehydration. Dehydration is when there is deficit of fluids and electrolytes.

Fad diet: While there is no single definition of a fad diet. A fad diet is defined as a trendy dietary regimen or style of eating that often eliminates one or more of the essential food groups and promises insensibly quick results or health improvements. Following fad diets without proper guidance can pose risks to your health.

Fat: In reference to nutrition, fat is one of the main nutrient groups that is obtained from the diet and it gives you energy. There are different types of fat in our diet: saturated and unsaturated fat. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products, palm and coconut oil. Unsaturated fats are mostly found in vegetables, nuts and fish.

Fiber: It is a carb naturally found in plants. Not all carbs are bad. Fiber is an example of a good carb. It is useful in supporting healthy digestion and making you feel full faster and longer. This is found on food labels under the category, Total Carbohydrates.

GI tract (gastrointestinal tract): Sometimes known as the gut. It is the pathway starting at the mouth by which food enters the body and solid wastes are expelled through the anus.

Gluten: This is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten contributes to dough’s elasticity, it acts like a glue that allows the foods created to hold their shape and gives bread its chewy and soft texture. When shopping for gluten-free products, keep in mind that the Food Drug and Administration (FDA) does not require foods to be labelled gluten-free.

Lactase: This is the enzyme made in the small intestine that is required to breakdown lactose, which is found in dairy products.

Macronutrients: Sometimes referred to as macros. This term describes the three main nutrients your body needs and uses in large amounts: carbohydrates, fat and protein. In contrast, there are micronutrients (see below).

Metabolism: This describes the chemical reactions the body undergoes to break down food into energy. Your metabolism affects how efficient your body burns calories (converting food into energy).

Micronutrients: These are nutrients that include vitamins and minerals, which your body requires and uses much smaller amounts compared to macronutrients.

Omega 3 fatty acids: These are polyunsaturated fats that are essential for good health. There are three main omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mostly in plant oils such as flaxseed, canola oil, and soybean oil. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood.

Protein: One of the three main nutrient groups. It is a macronutrient that is essential to build, repair and maintain bones, muscle and skin.

Sodium: Also known as salt. It is a mineral found naturally in foods and it may also be added in foods. This is the term that is listed on food labels.

Trans fat: A type of unhealthy fat that is artificially made when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats to help increase shelf life, stability of fat and enhance flavor. This is found on food labels and this is something you want to avoid or highly limit.

Whole grains: These are a type of grain that contains the entire grain kernel ― the bran, germ, and endosperm. They are best known for providing a good source of dietary fiber.

Vegetarian: A plant-based diet that may include varying amounts of eggs and/or dairy products. Sometimes fish and shellfish are included. A vegetarian diet does not include meat, poultry, meat or poultry-based ingredients or their byproducts. There are different types of vegetarian diets: 1) Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet: Eliminates meat, fish and poultry but includes eggs and dairy products 2) Lacto-vegetarian diet: Eliminates meat, fish, poultry and eggs but includes dairy products 3) Ovo-vegetarian diet: Eliminates meat, fish, poultry and dairy products but includes eggs 4) Pescatarian diet: Eliminates meat and poultry but includes fish and sometimes eggs and dairy products.

Referencing sources:
http://www.medlineplus.gov/
http://www.webmd.com
https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.63.11_Suppl.76

Winter wellness tips

In collaboration with CSUN nutrition intern Sierra King, we came up with a few essential tips to help remind others to take care of themselves this winter season. What are some of your favorite ways to keep up with wellness?

Surprising signs related to nutrient deficiencies

In America, access to and intake of high caloric foods are prevalent. These are foods that meet our energy or calorie needs. However, access to and intake of nutritious foods is another story. The concept of being “well fed, but undernourished” can be defined as consuming adequate or excess calories, but not getting adequate nutrients such as essential vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting substances in the diet.

Studies using information on nutrient intake from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) have indicated that up to 9 out of 10 Americans get less than the recommended amount for one or more vitamins and minerals in their diets. That’s a huge number! Inadequate nutrient intakes could lead to deficiencies and some of the most common nutrient deficiencies in America are iron, Vitamin D, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, Vitamin B12 and calcium. One thing that many of us may not realize is that nutrient deficiencies can be tricky to identify. Aside from lab results, they can present themselves in a variety of physical and mental symptoms. If deficiencies are not addressed appropriately, they can lead to a variety of health problems.

Holiday fitness challenge

Holidays are approaching fast. What are YOUR health goals? Whether you’re just getting started or have been working towards them this year, don’t lose track of your health goals. Make health your priority, it’s the best gift you can give yourself!

One way to help you stay focused is to join a holiday fitness challenge. You can do one with family, friends, coworkers or anyone else you’d like. Make things fun! Right now, there’s an opportunity to join an online holiday fitness challenge hosted by fitness expert/coach David Wick of Fresh Focus Fitness. In collaboration with Fresh Focus Fitness, as part of the challenge’s program, you’ll receive my nutrition tips and tricks to let you enjoy the holidays and stay on track towards your health goals. You’ll be entered to win several prizes, one of them being a free consultation with me (eligibility rules apply, please read the details of the challenge here). For any questions about the challenge, visit facebook.com/freshfocusfitness or contact @freshfocusfitness on Instagram.