Elderberry is among the most popular natural remedies for stubborn colds and flu symptoms. It helps fight viral and bacterial infections, speeding up recovery. Keep reading to learn about its proven health benefits, side effects, and how to use it.
What is Elderberry?
Elderberries are glossy, tart, deep-purple fruits of the Sambucus tree. Among many varieties, the most common one is the European elder or black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) .
Native to Europe, black elderberry today grows across America, Asia, and North Africa. The tree is up to 30 feet tall, with a brownish-gray bark and fragrant white flowers. The fruits are small, dark-colored berries, sometimes appearing almost black .
- Helps fight the cold and flu
- Kills viruses & bacteria
- Boosts the immune system
- High nutritional value
- Great taste
- May lower gut and gum inflammation
- May help lower blood sugar
- Protects the heart
- Leaves, seeds, bark, and raw berries are potentially toxic
- Likely unsafe for pregnant or breastfeeding women
- Possible drug interactions
Use in Traditional Medicine
All parts of black elderberry are used in folk medicine. The flowers and leaves are natural remedies for reducing pain, swelling, and inflammation. Preparations from the bark are taken to stimulate urination and bowel movements. Fresh or dried berries are thought to relieve headaches, toothaches, low back pain, respiratory infections, as well as constipation [1, 3].
Recent research voices the traditional wisdom. Flavonoids discovered in the flowers and fruits of elderberry trees have antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. As such, they can help fight the flu, sinus and bronchial infections .
Furthermore, Sambucus nigra has become popular in the food industry. The berries are often used to make refreshing, sweet-tart juices, jams, jellies, pies, punches, and wines. Elderflowers are boiled to prepare a soothing, creamy tea or syrup or added to the batter when baking [5, 6].
Black, Blue, and Red Elderberry – What’s the Difference?
- American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
- Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea), and
- Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
But black elderberry is cherished for its medicinal properties for a reason. Although both European and American elderberry abound in antioxidants, the European variety is higher in specific ones (phenolics and flavonoids). Anthocyanins deepen the color of plants, which explains the greater potency of black elderberry, especially compared to the red variety [10, 11, 2].
Red and blue elderberry, native to the North American continent, may offer distinct health benefits. Native people would collect these berries in the summer and store them in a safe place for medicinal use during the winter months. Research on their effects is limited, however.
- Flavonoids (rutin, quercetin, anthocyanins), which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-viral properties
- Provitamin A (carotenoids) and vitamin C.
Health Benefits of Elderberry
1) Helps Fight the Cold & Flu
Flavonoids in elderberry may prevent infection from the influenza A and B viruses, which are responsible for the yearly seasonal flu epidemics. In test tubes, elderberry could bind to both viruses and prevent them from entering cells and multiplying [14, 15, 16].
Sambucol is a popular, widely-available brand of standardized elderberry extracts. In clinical studies with over 80 people with influenza A or B, taking Sambucol syrup for 5 days relieved flu symptoms 4 days faster than the placebo [17, 18, 19].
Elderberry lozenges (four times per day) reduced fever, headache, muscle pain, and nasal congestion within 48 hours in a clinical study on 64 people with the flu .
Elderberry syrup also decreased the duration of flu-like symptoms in chimpanzees .
Symptoms of the flu and the common cold often overlap. But colds are caused by different viruses and are usually milder. One factor majorly increases your chance of catching a cold: stress. Elderberry may help prevent or reduce the duration of colds, especially in times of intense physical or mental stress.
Frequent travelers often feel stressed – long flights and layovers put a strain on the immune and respiratory system. In one clinical study of 312 people traveling overseas from Australia, elderberry extract reduced the severity and duration of common cold symptoms, compared to the placebo .
Reducing Inflammation & Swelling
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are common ingredients in cold and flu products (such as Advil); they reduce symptoms such as swelling, pain, and stuffiness. A combination of elderberry and other herbs (gentian root, cowslip flowers, sorrel, vervain wort) might work in a similar way: it lowered inflammatory enzymes COX-2 and messengers (PGE-2) in rats .
2) Helps Fight Bacterial and Viral Infections
In clinical studies with over 2,3k people with a bacterial sinus infection, a combination of elderberry and other herbs (gentian root, cowslip flowers, sorrel, vervain wort) improved symptoms. It lowered inflammation, relieved headaches, and reduced nasal discharge [28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33].
In test tubes, elderberry extracts blocked the growth of bacteria that cause malaria and a myriad of other health problems (including Plasmodium falciparum, Streptococcus, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus, Bacillus, Salmonella, and Helicobacter pylori) [24, 34, 35, 2].
3) Balances the Immune System
Elderberry extract acts as an immuno-modulator: it can calm an overactive immune system or activate an overly-suppressed one. It may be an especially good remedy for people with weak immune systems (including those with AIDS and cancer) [36, 37, 38, 1].
Enhancing Immune Defense
In studies on human cells, elderberry syrup (Sambucol) increased the production of inflammatory cytokines (IL-1b, TNF-alpha, IL-6, IL-8) needed to activate immune cells. Elderberry syrup also increased the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10, which might help restrict the immune response and prevent it from getting out of hand [36, 37, 39].
Preventing Immune Overactivity
Elderberry and elderflower extracts may balance an overactive immune system by blocking nitric oxide production in cells. Overproduction of nitric oxide has been linked to inflammatory autoimmune diseases [42, 43, 44].
4) Rich in Nutrients and Antioxidants
Elderberries are low-calorie fruits, high in nutrients and antioxidants. Their precise nutritional content depends on the ripeness of the fruit, environmental conditions, and the plant variety .
100 g of fresh elderberries contain only 73 calories and will provide 28% of your daily fiber requirement. Plus, the fruits are rich in vitamins – such as vitamin C and provitamin A (carotenoids) – and minerals – including iron, potassium, and phosphorus [7, 45].
|Dietary Fiber||7.4 g||28%|
|Vitamin C||18 – 35 mg||30 – 58%|
|Vitamin B6||0.25 mg||11%|
|Vitamin B5||0.18 mg||1%|
|Potassium||288 – 305 mg||9 – 10%|
|Phosphorus||49 – 57 mg||7 – 8%|
The leaves, berries, and flowers are high in antioxidants (flavonoids, phenolics, and anthocyanins) that lower oxidative stress and balance the immune system. Elderberries have the highest amount of flavonoids compared to 28 different species of berries [5, 49, 49, 50, 51, 52].
Some common preparation methods can lower certain nutrients and antioxidants, such as high extraction temperature, cooking, or juicing. Expectedly, elderberry teas, juices, jellies, and wines will be lower in active components than the fresh herb or its standardized extracts [53, 54, 7].
5) Protects the Heart
Elderberry may reduce several heart disease risk factors, such as obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. It also lowers inflammation and oxidative stress, which protects your heart and blood vessels [3, 1].
Flower and berry extracts, together with asparagus, reduced body weight, and improved blood pressure and quality of life in a clinical study on 80 people .
In animals (rats, mice) and cells, elderberry extracts lowered blood pressure, liver cholesterol, blood triglycerides, and fat buildup – all of which increase the risk of heart disease. Plus, they increased glutathione, one of the most important antioxidant enzymes in the body [56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61].
However, elderberry extract had no effect on inflammatory biomarkers, blood fat or sugar levels in a clinical study on 52 healthy postmenopausal women, given over 12 weeks .
6) Lowers Gum Inflammation
In several clinical studies with more than 200 people, a herbal mouth rinse containing elderberry, Centella, and purple coneflower decreased gum inflammation (gingivitis), bleeding and plaque size more than the placebo [64, 65, 66, 67, 68].
7) May be a Natural Diuretic and Laxative
In a clinical study on 20 people with constipation, a tea containing elderberry, anise, fennel, and Alexandrian senna increased the number of evacuations per day and improved bowel movements. It’s unclear to what extent elderberry helped, since senna is a well-known laxative .
8) May Help with Diabetes
Based on cell studies, elderberry extracts can lower blood sugar levels. They work by:
- Promoting insulin production
- Transferring sugar from the blood into cells and tissues
- Breaking down sugar in cells
- Blocking the enzymes (α-glucosidase and α-amylase) that digest carbs, which helps lower blood sugar spikes after meals [73, 74, 2, 75, 76].
9) May Aid Cancer Prevention
In a cell study, a mixed-berries formula (containing elderberry, wild blueberry, bilberry, cranberry, raspberry seeds, and strawberry extracts) blocked cancer blood vessel growth. Overall, it decreased tumor growth by 50% .
More research is needed to draw conclusions about the anti-cancer properties of elderberry.
10) May Promote Skin Health
A formula containing elderberry, common hawthorn, and dwarf everlast extracts had a sun protection factor (SPF) of almost 10, meaning that these herbs can naturally protect from UV rays .
According to limited animal studies, elderberry may help:
- Improve IBD symptoms .
- Reduce ulcer-causing Helicobacter pylori infections [34, 2].
- Boost mood and fight depression .
Clinical studies are lacking to back up these benefits.
Elderberry Side Effects & Safety
The bark, leaves, roots, as well as raw or unripe berries, contain a toxic compound (sambunigrin) which can lead to cyanide poisoning. Consumption of raw elder products may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even lead to hospitalization [3, 86, 19].
In 1984, 8 people became sick after drinking juice from fresh berries, leaves, and branches of Sambucus Mexicana tree. They suffered from nausea, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, stomach pain, numbness, and impaired consciousness .
However, elderberry allergies affect only 0.6% of the general population, according to a study of over 3.5K randomly tested people .
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Elderberries contain flavonoids, such as quercetin. Quercetin reduced fertility in female mice. Eating bilberries in moderate amounts is likely safe, but pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid supplements due to the lack of safety data [1, 93, 94].
Based on its possible benefits, elderberry may increase the effects of the following drugs:
- Water pills (diuretics); this can result in additional fluid loss [70, 71].
- Laxatives, which may excessively increase bowel movements .
- Diabetes medication, potentially causing unexpected drops in blood sugar levels .
- Blood pressure-lowering drugs, which may cause very low blood pressure [56, 57].
- Drugs that decrease the immune response (immunosuppressants), as it may decrease their effectiveness .
- Chemotherapy drugs, by affecting the immune response .
Consult your doctor before taking elderberry along with any medication to avoid potentially dangerous drug interactions.
Elderberry Supplements & How to Use
Sambucol is a clinically-tested standardized elderberry extract, available as syrup, gummies, capsules, and chewable tablets.
The syrup contains 38% of the standardized elderberry extract. The same potency is used in adults and kids (called Anti-Viral Flu Care), only the dosage differs.
The other formulation for kids called Cold & Flu contains 47mg of the extract per tablet, along with vitamin C, zinc, and Echinacea. Aside from these, the Cold & Flu softgel formulation for adults also contains white willow.
Non-medicinal ingredients include raspberry flavor, glucose, citric acid, and potassium sorbate. These will slightly differ across formulations (tablets/capsules/syrup), so be sure to check the label carefully if you’re allergic to any [95, 96].
Tip: Watch out for Sambucol homeopathic formulations (such as “Cold and Flu Relief Homeopathic” and “Cold & Flu Sinus Relief”). These don’t contain the standardized elderberry extract but homeopathic dilutions with much lower amounts of active compounds. The efficacy of such products is unproven.
To make your own syrup, you will need:
- 3½ cups water
- 2/3 cup dried elderberries (or 1 1/3 cups fresh or frozen)
- 1 cup of raw honey or brown rice syrup
- Put the berries and water in a saucepan (you can also add other herbs, such as ginger, cinnamon, and cloves)
- Place over medium heat and gradually bring to a boil. Then decrease to simmer for around 45 minutes, stirring often
- Once about half of the liquid evaporated, remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature
- Mash the berries carefully and pour through a strainer into a bowl
- Add the honey or brown rice syrup and place the mix in a saucepan again
- Bring to a boil and continue to cook for 10-30 minutes until the mixture thickens
- Take the mixture off the stove and allow it to cool
- Transfer to a glass jar
- Store your syrup in the refrigerator
For flu or cold, 15ml elderberry syrup (Sambucol) four times a day for five days is recommended. Alternatively, take a 175 mg elderberry lozenge four times a day, for two days. Since various formulations exist, it’s best to follow the instructions on the label [20, 95].
For lowering blood fats, 400 mg elderberry powder or 5ml elderberry juice (containing 10% anthocyanins) three times a day, for at least 2 weeks .
For gum inflammation, 15 ml of a multi-herbal rinse (with elderberry, Centella, and Echinacea) for 60 seconds twice a day for adults and children older than 12 is recommended. For younger children, a 10 ml rinse twice a day is advised .
Limitations and Caveats
Studies about the benefits of the elderberry are largely limited to animals and cells.
The few clinical trials carried out had a small number of participants, and some of their findings are debatable. The benefits and contribution of elderberry are unclear in studies using multi-herbal formulas.
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Clinical studies support the traditional use of black elderberry for reducing flu and cold symptoms, enhancing immune defense, and lowering oxidative stress. It may offer additional benefits, such as protecting the heat and improving gut diseases, but more research is needed.
Standardized extracts and cooked berries are safe and cause mild side effects. Children, pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid them, while people taking prescription medication should consult their doctor before supplementing.