Here we are in the midst of a pandemic, being pelted left and right by information and advice that is mostly founded on speculation and a lot of fear-mongering. It is absolutely terrifying to have no idea about what is right or wrong, which medicines are helpful and which are not, what to touch and what to stay away from, etc. But in my opinion, as a certified herbalist (not a medical doctor, mind you), telling healthy individuals to stay away from immune-building, viral-preventative herbal remedies is not the best way to go.
What is a “Cytokine Storm”?
Some of you may have seen the articles flying around that say that elderberries and echinacea cause a hyper-inflammation response known as a “cytokine storm”. While cytokine storms are associated with fatality and can occur during a wide variety of infectious and noninfectious diseases, including viruses like influenza and COVID-19 (or the “Corona Virus”), there is not a cohesive understanding of the physiological conditions that precipitate a cytokine storm, of the contribution such a “storm” makes to the progression of the disease, or of which therapeutic strategies should be used to prevent a storm or stop it once it’s begun (1).
Many complex factors need to be present for a cytokine storm to occur – including being quite sick for some period of time. Taking herbal remedies alone will NOT cause a cytokine storm (2)
How do Herbs Like Elderberry and Echinacea Work?
The thing is, Elderberry and Echinacea do activate the immune system by increasing both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine production, which is a normal response of a healthy immune system. So, yes they are very beneficial to the immune system activation and the inflammatory immune process, which is necessary for fighting off viruses and other infections in healthy individuals or those with certain various diseases (3).
On that note, studies have also found that Elderberry and Echinacea could have immunoprotective and immunomodulating effects, which would actually inhibit the likelihood of a cytokine storm (1). Which, just so we are clear when these “storms” occur, only happen as a last-ditch response to the underperformance of the immune system after a long period of severe distress (2). This doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
People that fall under the category of “Cytokine Storm” danger are those who:
- already have or have been exposed to COVID-19
- are in the late stages of fighting influenza
- have a pre-existing autoimmune disease (where the immune system is already in overdrive)
- are taking immunosuppressants (such as patients undergoing active treatments for cancer).
If you are still concerned about taking immune-boosting herbal remedies like Elderberry or Echinacea during this time, my recommendation is to only take them solely as a preventative and discontinue use in the event that you become ill. If you are a healthy individual with no pre-existing autoimmune conditions, then you will be just fine. In fact, you will even be ahead of the game with a super-strong, virus-fighting immune system.
- V. Barak, T. Halperin, I. Kalickman. “The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines.”. European Cytokine Network. 2001;12(2):290-6.
- V. Barak, T. Halperin, I. Kalickman. “The effect of herbal remedies on the production of human inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines.” Isr Med Assoc J. 2002 Nov;4(11 Suppl):919-22.
- Hudson, James B. “Applications of the phytomedicine Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower) in infectious diseases.” Journal of biomedicine & biotechnology vol. 2012 (2012): 769896. doi:10.1155/2012/769896