Fighting flu: the natural approach

Doctor in a white coat holding a sign that says flu season ahead

We have all had colds. They are generally unavoidable, usually caught from hand contact rather than droplet infection.

Doctor in a white coat holding a sign that says flu season aheadYou touch a door knob or a phone that an infected person has touched then you rub your eyes and voila! In it goes.

However, comparatively few of us have had genuine influenza (flu), though this is generally caught in the same way.

Symptoms of flu:

  • Temperature 38 degrees and above
  • Sudden onset
  • Aches and pains
  • Sore joints
  • Painful throat
  • Possible sneezing, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
  • Too unwell to continue with everyday activities
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Dry cough

Symptoms of a cold:

  • Gradual onset
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Well enough to go to work

A cold will usually be over in around five days. Flu will generally leave you feeling exhausted and finding it difficult to cope for several weeks, possibly longer if you have been very ill.

A doctor once described flu to me in this way: You know you have flu when you are told you have the winning lottery ticket but would rather stay in bed than collect your winnings.

Flu can be a serious illness for some people, including those:

  • Over 65
  • Under five
  • Pregnant
  • On chemotherapy or other immune suppressing drugs
  • With a long-term condition such as kidney disease, hepatitis or diabetes
  • Suffering from respiratory conditions like asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)
  • With HIV

If you are immune compromised or suffer a long-term illness it is worth talking either to your doctor or pharmacist about the flu vaccination or a qualified herbalist about immune support.

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This is because people who are already unwell are more likely to suffer complications, such as severe respiratory problems.

How to treat flu

Doctors usually recommend paracetemol or ibuprofen to bring down a fever and to reduce the discomfort. However, it has been shown that suppressing a fever can make flu last longer, and ibuprofen is being shown to interfere with the natural resolution of inflammation – an important part of our immune defences.

Essentially, unless your temperature is dangerously high, consider leaving it alone.

Elderberries have been extensively researched for their ability to prevent flu. In a Norwegian study [1] a group of people suffering flu symptoms were given an elderberry extract and were found to recover significantly more quickly than those taking a placebo.

Health and Nature Supplements Collection. Elderberry - SambucusAnother study showed benefit from taking an elderberry syrup [2] and there are many other studies showing value for a proprietary extract called Sambucol which is available in health food stores, pharmacies and supermarkets. [3]

It’s hypothesised that the natural blend of vitamin C, bioflavonoids and anthocyanins (the blue pigments) act to damage the virus and prevent Haemagglutination – a process where the virus sticks to the wall of human cells in its bid to infect them.

Make your own elderberry syrup


  • 1 (125g 5oz) cup fresh or dried elderberries (soaked overnight in water)
  • 3½ cups of water
  • 2 tablespoons fresh or dried ginger root (grate or slice if fresh)
  • 2 cinnamon quills
  • Half teaspoon of cloves or clove powder
  • 2 star anise (optional)
  • 1 cup/200g/8oz raw honey (we get ours from our own bees but local health food stores, farmers’ markets and local beekeepers will supply it. Or you could use organic sugar).
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  • Pour water into a medium saucepan and add elderberries, ginger, cinnamon and cloves (do not add honey!)
  • Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce to a simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour until the liquid has reduced by almost half. Remove from heat until cool enough to be handled. Pour through a strainer into a glass jar or bowl. Press the remains through a sieve, jelly bag or a mouli to remove the skins and seeds.
  • Discard or compost the elderberries and let the liquid cool to lukewarm. Add 1 cup of honey and stir well. Or, if using sugar, dissolve and bring to the boil for 15 minutes.
  • When honey or sugar is well mixed into the elderberry mixture, pour the syrup into a sterilised screw-top bottle, pint-sized mason jar or 16-ounce glass bottle. If unopened this will keep up to a year in a cool, dry place.
  • Once opened, store in the fridge and take daily for its immune boosting properties. Some sources recommend taking only during the week and not on the weekends to boost immunity.
  • Standard dose is half (2.5ml) to 1 teaspoon (5ml) for kids and ½ (7.5ml) to 1 tablespoon (15ml) for adults. If the flu does strike, take the normal dose every 2-3 hours instead of once a day until symptoms disappear. You can also use this topped up with boiling water with a slice of lemon as a soothing hot drink.

Your local herbalist can also help you find immune-boosting answers to the inevitable winter bugs.

Flu is miserable, no two ways about it, and thanks to the not-so-humble elderberry, prevention is definitely better than cure.

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Find out more…

Katherine Bellchambers-Wilson

About Katherine Bellchambers-Wilson

Passionate about looking good and feeling great, I’m a BSc qualified herbalist who won’t make you give up your chocolate, coffee or alcohol (unless you have a stomach ulcer and then only for a while). I believe a little of what you fancy does you good and that all work and no play just spoils a perfectly good Sunday. Herbal medicine harnesses the power of plants to help nudge your body into balance so you can get on with doing what’s important. BSc MNIMH