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Does that medicine really work? Here’s how to tell. - (1/28/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Sam came into the pharmacy and asked the pharmacist, “Do you have any elderberry juice? My grandma used to swear by that stuff for a cold. Better than any antibiotic, she always said.” First, the pharmacist noted that no antibiotic will “cure” a cold. Second, with the identification of approximately 115 types of rhinoviruses – the family of viruses that cause the common cold – no drug that will target these viruses will be available in the near future. Instead, cold sufferers will continue to treat their misery according to symptoms: fevers, chills, headaches, fatigue, stuffy or runny noses, cough, sore throat, and muscle or body aches. 

The pharmacist would never be dismissive of the claims made by Sam’s grandmother that elderberry juice is a useful tonic. The pharmacist knows that elderberry juice has a slew of cold-fighting ingredients, such as vitamins A and C, potassium, fiber, and powerful natural – not synthetic – antioxidants like phenolic acid and flavonols. Antioxidants can prevent cell damage by removing cellular waste products, called free radicals, before they can cause diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, among others. In terms of viral infections, free radicals “stress out” the immune system, making way for infectious agents to wreak havoc in the body.

Loaded with antioxidants! A good start! In theory, elderberry juice has the potential for fighting colds. Yet, the pharmacist wants scientific proof that elderberry juice works. In this case, the Internet is a valuable friend. Remember that much junk science exists on the Internet. People want you to buy things, and they attempt to make a good case for it. But, because it is your body, you want the most valid information. One of the top places to go for medical data is PubMed.gov. 

PubMed is a medical search engine. This free searching tool is part of the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) database at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is entirely non-partisan. PubMed has about 30 million records going back as far as 1809; NLM adds approximately 500,000 new records each year. PubMed has over 13 million clinical study abstracts and 15 links to full-text studies. Only well-designed and previously published clinical studies are eligible to be listed in this search engine.

Let’s look for articles on elderberry juice. First, go to PubMed.gov. Then, type "elderberry" into the search box. Hit enter. What you get is 54 abstracts of articles involving chemistry, genetics, and other highbrow topics that are not helpful for your search. Thus, you can narrow the search. Type in “elderberry common cold.” Now, you can retrieve ten articles on elderberries and their use in upper respiratory infections. One 2019 study is called “Black elderberry supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms”. The study investigators concluded that their findings present “an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.” Sam’s grandmother was correct, after all. Why get an antibiotic that will not work when a folk remedy might take care of some of the symptoms and even shorten the length of the cold? You can drink elderberry tea, take capsules, or use elderberry powder. You can buy it in liquid form and make popsicles out of it! 

Next time you hear over the backyard fence that bat guano is good for cramps or that comfrey tea does not destroy the liver, click on PubMed and get bona fide scientific information, not a run-around. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com. 

 


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