Mothers across Snomohish County are dosing their children up with elderberry syrup, but is there science to back this practice up? (Jennifer Bardsley)

Mothers across Snomohish County are dosing their children up with elderberry syrup, but is there science to back this practice up? (Jennifer Bardsley)

Does following old wives’ tales support your immune system?

Maybe that daily spoonful of elderberry syrup is helping this mom ward off the flu. Or maybe not.

“I’m going to sleep downstairs,” says my husband in between coughing fits. “I don’t want my coughing to keep you awake.”

I pull the bed covers up tighter and wonder why he’s sick and I’m not. Usually it’s the other way around. Could it be that the old wives’ tales I’ve been following this winter work?

Old Wives’ Tale No. 1: Take a teaspoon of elderberry syrup every morning to ward against the flu.

There are a small handful of scientific studies that support the power of elderberries. For example, in April the University of Sydney published a study about the flu that said, “Compounds from elderberries can directly inhibit the virus’s entry and replication in human cells, and can help strengthen a person’s immune response to the virus.”

Maybe me gagging down a teaspoon of the syrup every morning actually helps.

Old Wives’ Tale No. 2: Drink chaga mushroom tea to strengthen your immune system.

Chaga mushrooms are a black parasitic fungus that live on birch trees. Sometimes called “the king of mushrooms,” marketers make all sorts of claims about them such as chagas having anti-inflammatory properties or helping people with cancer.

But a quick Google search shows that although there have been at least 170 studies on chaga, none of that research has involved humans. While it’s cool knowing that chaga might help rats with paw edema, it’s a pretty big leap to assume that chaga tea would help a mom like me beat the common cold.

Old Wives’ Tale No. 3: Blow-dry your hair after a shower because a wet head could make you sick.

I used to take a shower and then fall asleep with wet hair all the time until I got pneumonia in 2017. Now I blow dry my hair as soon as I towel off because I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry.

But I can’t find any research to support the idea that going off into the world with wet hair will make me sick.

Old Wives’ Tale No. 4: Beat a cold by sweating in a sauna.

After water aerobics, I hang out in the steam room and sauna with my classmates. Could the heat keep me healthy? According to a 2009 article from the New York Times, “there is evidence that saunas may speed recovery from colds and reduce their occurrences. Some researchers suspect sauna heat reduces symptoms because it improves drainage, while others speculate that the high temperatures help weaken cold and flu viruses.”

I don’t know if those health benefits are true, but the locker room gossip always makes the sauna worthwhile.

Back to my poor husband. I watch him collect his pillow and drag himself out of bed. “Stay here,” I say. “If I was going to catch your cold, I would have gotten it by now.”

“That’s OK,” he says after a coughing spasm. “You need your rest.”

“True,” I say as I wave good night. “And elderberry syrup,” I whisper to myself. “I need more magic berries.”

Jennifer Bardsley publishes books under her own name and the pseudonym Louise Cypress. Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal. Email her at

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