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The Many Health Benefits of Elderberry

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When you come down with a cold—or worse, the flu—you want relief fast. You may have heard that elderberry can help you kick your cold or flu more quickly. And if you walk into a vitamin store or even some supermarkets during flu season, you’ll probably see the aisles stocked with elderberry supplements, elderberry syrup, and elderberry extract.

But before you start adding elderberry to your immune-boosting arsenal, you probably have some questions. What is elderberry? What is elderberry good for? And does the research back up the anecdotal evidence?

In this article, we’ll examine elderberry’s health benefits and uses so you can be sure you’re making the right choice when it comes to immune support.

What is elderberry?

Also known as European elder, black elder, elderflower, or its Latin name, Sambucus nigra, elderberry is a tree that grows in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. It’s a member of the honeysuckle family. (1) The dried flowers and the fruit are both commonly used in teas, extracts, syrups, and pills, and they have a long history of use in Europe. (2)

Elderberries next to essential oil bottle

Elderberries are commonly used in teas, extracts, syrups, and pills for their immune-boosting properties.

Today elderberry is mostly promoted for its antioxidant and antiviral effects. (3) It owes its antioxidant prowess to the anthocyanins it contains. (4) Anthocyanins are the type of flavonoids that give elderberries their purple hue. As antioxidants, anthocyanins help the body fight off harmful free radicals. Among small fruits, elderberry has some of the greatest antioxidant capacity. (5)

A number of studies have suggested that anthocyanins may have anti-inflammatory effects as well—perhaps helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. (6)(7)

The flowers of the elderberry plant also have been shown to have antioxidant properties. In fact, in a study that looked at eight different kinds of edible flowers, the flowers of the Sambucus nigra tree had the highest free radical–scavenging effects. Plus, they were the best at keeping lipids from oxidizing. (8) That’s important because oxidation of lipids has been linked to many illnesses, including atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and more. (9)

A note about safety: The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cautions that consuming large amounts of the flower may be harmful, but notes that no illnesses from consuming too much elderflower have been reported. (2)

practitioner measuring patient's blood pressure

Elderberry has a number of health benefits and traditional uses including controlling blood pressure.

What is elderberry good for?

Elderberry has been used since ancient times as a laxative and diuretic. In more recent history, it has been used to treat colds as well—which is what it’s most well known for today. (10)

In addition to these more common uses, elderberry has a number of traditional uses: (10)(11)

However, while there’s anecdotal and historical evidence for these uses, they don’t have much science behind them. Most research on elderberry focuses on its immune-boosting properties.

Elderberry for colds and flu

Because of its antioxidant and immune-boosting properties, elderberry gets a lot of attention come cold and flu season. And with good reason.

Plenty of lab research (in other words, research not done on humans) has shown that elderberry extracts can fend off cold and flu. One study, for instance, found that two of the flavonoids in elderberry bind to the flu virus H1N1 and prevent it from infecting host cells. (12)

But promising lab research doesn’t always translate into effective treatments in humans. So we look to human research to confirm what lab research tells us might work. When it comes to elderberry, the human research is preliminary but encouraging.

Can elderberry keep you healthy while traveling?

One study looked at cold and flu symptoms at a time when our immune systems seem to go on vacation—when we go on vacation. (13) Long flights can be tough on the body, between the recirculating air on the plane, proximity to other people’s germs, and general exhaustion. All of that can add to an increased risk of respiratory illness.

So in this study, researchers gave 312 economy class passengers traveling from Australia to an overseas destination either elderberry extract or a placebo. They then had the participants record their upper respiratory health and cold symptoms during and after their travel.

The researchers found that the people in the placebo group had more colds, and that their colds lasted significantly longer than for the people in the group receiving elderberry extract.

Elderberry and flu recovery time

Other research has tried to determine whether elderberry can help people kick the flu faster. One study gave either elderberry extract or placebo to people with the flu, within the first 48 hours after symptoms started. (14) Treatment lasted for three days.

The researchers found that after three days, symptoms had resolved completely in 13 out of 15 of the people receiving elderberry. In the placebo group, no such luck. Only 4 out of 12 were symptom-free in the same time period.

In another study, people with flu symptoms were given that same elderberry extract or placebo four times a day for five days. The majority of people who took the elderberry noted “pronounced improvement” after only three to four days. In the placebo group, that same improvement didn’t come for seven to eight days. (15)

elderberry juice in two glasses with elderberries next to the glasses

To derive the best health benefits from elderberry, look for extracts, capsules, or syrup supplements made from elderflowers and ripe berries.

Elderberry syrup, elderberry juice, and other forms of elderberry

If you decide to take elderberry to help ward off colds and flu, you may feel overwhelmed with the choices. Should you eat elderberry jam? Or drizzle elderberry syrup on your waffles? Or should you go straight for the supplements?

While elderberry is rich in good-for-you compounds like anthocyanins, certain elderberry products are more potent than others. Elderberry jams and culinary syrups, for instance, contain hardly any anthocyanins. That’s because the process used to make these products destroys the beneficial components of the berry. (16)

If you want to reap the benefits of elderberry, look for extracts, capsules, or infusions made from the elderflowers or ripe berries. In addition, syrups made to be taken as dietary supplements—not as flavoring syrups—have high concentrations of the health-promoting stuff you’re looking for. (16)

Elderberry safety

Elderberry is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration. (17) However, unripe elderberry fruits and bark and branches of the elderberry bush can be toxic, so be sure to avoid those. (10) Safety for children and pregnant or lactating women hasn’t been studied.

Elderberry-drug interactions

If you’re using any sort of immunosuppressant therapy or corticosteroids, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking elderberry because it’s possible that the immune-boosting properties of elderberry could cause interactions. (10)

The bottom line

While research does point to some impressive benefits for elderberry—especially for cold and flu—larger and more rigorous studies still need to be done. In the meantime, given the overall safety of elderberry flowers and ripe berries, and the fact that they’re a great source of antioxidants, you might want to consider keeping some in your medicine bag this cold and flu season. And if a long plane ride is anywhere in your near future, maybe pack some elderberry in your bag!

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