Elderberries: What and Why?

October 18, 2023

As we head into the cold and flu season, older and young alike are looking for ways to improve their overall health and boost immune systems by natural means, hoping to prevent or cure their ills with the foods they eat. 

People have long used elderberry for its health benefits. It contains antioxidants, and many believe it can relieve colds, fight the flu, and strengthen the immune system, among many other potential benefits. 

Intro To Elderberries

Recent studies have created even more buzz around this dark purple berry. Two studies showed that elderberry extract supplements shortened the duration of the flu by four days as compared to a placebo. With these seemingly encouraging results and glowing reviews from people from all walks of life, elderberry supplement sales more than doubled between January and March of 2018 to more than $100 million in the United States alone. 

Elderberries are dark, purplish sour berries harvested from the Sambucus nigra “elder” trees from late summer to autumn for their perceived health benefits. The elder tree was believed to possess healing properties and was often used to make ointments and tinctures that were said to help relieve pain and heal wounds. Its history dates back as far as 400 BC, and Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” purportedly called the elder tree his “medicine chest.” 

What They Do

The berries and flowers of elderberry are packed with antioxidants and vitamins that may boost your immune system. They may also help tame inflammation, lessen stress, and help protect your heart, too. It’s also been used as a treatment for constipation, joint and muscle pain, infections that affect how you breathe, headaches, fever, kidney problems, epilepsy, and some minor skin conditions. 

How They’re Consumed

Just as uses for elderberry are many, so too are the forms it comes in, including syrups, gummies, lozenges, and teas. It’s also used in food coloring, body lotions, jams, and wine.

If you have a good supply of elderberry and want to make homemade remedies, try elderberry syrup. Simply wash the berries and remove the stems. Place the berries in a pot with water and bring to a boil. Once the raw berries are soft, mash them and strain out the solids. To the remaining liquid, add an equal amount of sugar, honey, or maple syrup and stir until dissolved. Many people will take a spoonful of elderberry syrup and allow it to coat the throat as a natural cough syrup. 

It’s important to remember elderberries should only be consumed when cooked. Elderberry contains cyanic glucosides, which can cause digestive problems such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if eaten raw. Heat neutralizes this toxin, also found in the seeds, bark, and leaves of the elder tree. 

Nutritional Information

While there is limited research into elderberry as a cold and flu treatment, elderberries do rank high in nutritional value. Similar to superfoods such as blueberries and cranberries, they can help fill in vitamin deficiencies in your daily diet. Elderberries are packed with vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants. They’re also rich in phenolics, flavonols, and anthocyanins, all of which are known for their antioxidant properties. 

Important Notes

Opinions vary on the effectiveness of elderberry, but most healthcare providers believe it’s fine to have it in small doses. A few things to keep in mind when considering adding elderberries to your diet: 

  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you shouldn’t take it. 
  • Other parts of the elder tree, including branches, twigs, leaves, roots, and seeds, are toxic. Avoid these when preparing elderberries for consumption. 
  • People with immune problems might have reactions to elderberry. 
  • If you get a rash or have trouble breathing after you have some, you might be allergic to it. 
  • Because it’s a diuretic, be careful when you take it if you’re also using medicines that make you urinate more often. 

Supplementing with elderberries may benefit you, especially during the colder months of the year, when your risk of contracting infections, viruses, or the flu is at its peak.  

The most effective way to use elderberry to treat a cold or upper respiratory infection is by taking it at the onset of symptoms until you begin to feel relief. Be sure to speak to your healthcare provider before starting any supplement to make sure it doesn’t interact with any other medications you may be taking.  

Dietary supplements are minimally regulated by the FDA and may or may not be suitable for you. The effects of supplements vary from person to person and depend on many variables, including type, dosage, frequency of use, and interactions with current medications. Please speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before starting any supplements.