It’s not just your imagination. There are more elderberry products on the shelves lately.
According to a recent Herbalgram market report, in 2019, elderberry supplements experienced 94 percent growth to total $25 million in sales—taking the number three spot on the top-selling supplement list. Then came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, and sales surged even more.
What is Elderberry?
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is the dark purple berry that comes from the European or black elder tree. Also called European elder, black elder, or elderflower, it grows naturally in the warmer parts of Europe, North America, Asia, and Northern Africa.
Considered an overgrown shrub or small tree, elderberry has clusters of small white or cream-colored flowers, while the berries cluster together in groups of black or dark blue. All parts of the plant (berries, flowers, leaves, bark, and seeds) have health-promoting substances. The berries are edible, though they are quite tart, as are the flowers, which can be used to make elderberry tea.
It’s always best to cook both, however. Raw or unripe elderberries contain compounds called cyanogenic glycosides that can cause toxicity. Cooking the berries and flowers destroys these toxins, eliminating the risk. Elderberry leaves and stems also contain these compounds and should not be ingested at all.
Is Elderberry Good for You?
In traditional medicine, elderberry was used to manage and heal a variety of conditions, including:
- Digestive problems (constipation and diarrhea)
- Arthritis pain
- Nasal congestion
- Skin wounds
Modern research shows that elderberries are super nutritious, packed with antioxidants and nutrients like vitamin C and fiber. One study comparing the antioxidant capacity of various fruit wines found the highest capacity in red wine, and elderberry, blueberry, and black currant wines (over other options like cherry, pear, plum, raspberry, and others).
Another study found that antioxidant status improved in people one hour after drinking 400 mL of elderberry juice.
As to how elderberries and elderberry extracts may act in the body, current research is still limited, but we do have some promising results, particularly in the area of immunity.
Elderberry Immunity Shown in Studies
Several studies have found that elderberry extracts and flower infusions can help reduce the severity and length of the flu, indicating an immune-boosting effect.
In a recent 2019 study from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and IT, scientists found that compounds from elderberries can “directly inhibit the [flu] virus’s entry and replication in human cells, and can help strengthen a person’s immune response to the virus,” according to Science Daily. These compounds inhibit the early stages of infection by blocking key viral proteins responsible for allowing the virus to attach to host cells.
In another 2019 study, researchers found that elderberry had many beneficial effects against the flu, inhibiting it at the early stages and stimulating immune cells to fight the infection.
In a third 2019 study, scientists reported that supplementation with elderberry substantially reduced upper respiratory symptoms in people with the common cold and/or flu. The extract was so effective that the researchers suggested it as a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs.
Several earlier studies show similar results.
- A 2016 study of 312 people traveling from Australia to an overseas destination showed that elderberry extract helped reduce cold duration and severity in air travelers.
- In a 2011 laboratory study, scientists found that standardized elderberry extract possessed antimicrobial activity against human pathogenic bacteria and influenza viruses.
- Researchers reported in a 2009 study that flavonoids (helpful chemicals) in elderberry bound to the H1N1 virus, and once bound, blocked the ability of the viruses to infect host cells. This beneficial effect was comparable to that of Tamiflu and Amantadine, two anti-viral medications.
- When 60 flu patients were given either an elderberry syrup or a placebo, those using the elderberry experienced relief of their symptoms within four days earlier than those using the placebo.
- In a 1995 study, scientists found that 93.3 percent of patients with the flu who were treated with an elderberry extract experienced a significant improvement in symptoms including fever within two days, whereas the control group (on a placebo) showed improvement within six days. Nearly all—90 percent—of patients taking the elderberry extract were cured within 2-3 days, compared to 6 days for the control group.
All of these studies show a strong potential for elderberry to be effective at boosting the immune system and shortening the duration of the cold and flu, as well as helping to reduce symptoms. Most of the studies were small, more research will help validate the results, but as elderberry is classified as generally safe, it may be worth a try.
Does Elderberry Have Other Health Benefits?
A small number of studies have suggested that elderberry may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Though the results are mixed so far, there is evidence that it may reduce blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.
Some other studies suggest that it may help fight cancer, protect against depression, and protect the skin from the damage of UV radiation.
Is Elderberry Safe to Use?
The FDA has classified elderberry as generally safe when used in moderate proportions. The suggested dose is 15 mL (1 tablespoon) of elderberry syrup four times daily for 3-5 days, or 175 mg of an elderberry supplement four times daily for two days. Taking it as soon as you think you may have a cold or flu is the best approach.
Taking too much elderberry can cause side effects like nausea and vomiting, weakness, and dizziness.
In short, if you’re looking for a way to boost your immunity, elderberries are a great option, as long as you prepare them properly or purchase the right products. But like all things, consuming elderberry products in moderation and as part of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle is key.