As a registered dietitian, I am always looking for natural ways to support not only my health, but that of my family and clients. Given the situation we are in today, strengthening the immune system and helping the body fight respiratory tract infections is high on the priority list. Elderberry is one go-to option that has been used for centuries in folk medicine to treat influenza, colds, and sinus infections. While you’ve likely heard of the importance of elderberries when it comes to colds and flu, elderberries also contain a wide range of nutritional benefits for supporting overall health.
Elderberry, also referred to as elder, comes from the Sambucus shrub of which there are many varieties. The most popular, and the variety discussed here is the Sambucus nigra, or black elder. The elderflowers and elderberries of the plant have both been used in medicinal preparations, but also have culinary applications. Elderflowers can be eaten fresh or boiled to create a tea and the elderberries can be used to make juice, jam, syrup, and wine.
Health Benefits of Elderberry
As reported in Nutrients, elderberries contain a wide variety of beneficial compounds providing antioxidant, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant, and immune-modulating effects. Among these compounds are the anthocyanins, which is where elderberries get their rich, dark color. Anthocyanins are powerful anti-inflammatory compounds known to help the body get rid of reactive oxygen species, thus decreasing the risk of chronic disease. In fact, anthocyanins have been shown to specifically decrease cardiovascular disease risk, reduce cancer cell growth, decrease body weight, positively impact blood glucose, and improve insulin sensitivity.
In addition, the flavonoids (which are a type of anthocyanin) contained in elderberries have been shown to act in an antiviral manner with regard to herpes simplex virus type 1, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and paraflu and flu viruses. As reported in The Journal of International Medical Research, a placebo-controlled, double-blind trial during a Flu B outbreak described a complete cure in two to three days for 90 percent of the elderberry-treated group compared to six days for the placebo group. In addition, treatment with elderberry syrup for Flu A showed similar results with the time of illness being reduced by three to four days.
Elderberry has also been shown to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. In one study, participants taking elderberry had on average a two-day shorter duration and also experienced decreased cold severity when compared to those cold-sufferers receiving placebo.
Additional Elderberry Nutrients
Aside from the abundant anthocyanins, elderberries also contain a variety of nutrients to support cardiovascular, mental, and respiratory health like vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B9, C and E, copper, zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. In addition, elderberries contain carotenoids, phytosterols, and polyphenols.
Does Elderberry Have Side Effects?
The raw, unripe elderberry does contain toxic cyanogenic glycosides and should be avoiding. Elderberries that have been processed are safe for human consumption and all clinical trials and studies using elderberry fruit extract have indicated a good safety profile.
Those with autoimmune disease or taking immunosuppressants should speak to their physician before consuming elderberry as it does upregulate the immune system potentially exacerbating autoimmune symptoms and/or affecting medication action.
**This information is for educational purposes only and not intended to treat or diagnose any medical condition**
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “Elderberry.” Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/plant/elder-plant
- Lee YM, Yoon Y, Yoon H, Park HM, Song S, Yeum KJ. Dietary Anthocyanins against Obesity and Inflammation. Nutrients. 2017;9(10):1089. Published 2017 Oct 1. doi:10.3390/nu9101089
- Tiralongo E, Wee SS, Lea RA. Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(4):182. Published 2016 Mar 24. doi:10.3390/nu8040182 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4848651/
- Utah State University Extension Service “Elderberry in the Garden.” October 2014. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1630&context=extension_curall
- Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004;32(2):132-140. doi:10.1177/147323000403200205
Written by Kellie Blake RDN, LD, IFNCP