Elderberry has a long history of use as a medicinal plant. Ancient Egyptians used it to heal burns, while Native Americans use it to treat infections. We still use this medicinal berry in folk medicine for various ailments.
Elderberries are dark berries that are a fruit of the European Elder tree. They are rich in antioxidants that help to fight flu, relieve cold and boost the immune system.
Let us learn more about elderberries and their numerous health benefits.
What is elderberry?
Elderberry refers to the different species of Sambucus, which is a genus of flowering plants belonging to the Adoxacceae family. Elderberry is native to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia and has now become common in the US as well.
The most common variety of this plant is Sambucus nigra, which is also known as the European elderberry or black elder (1). This tree grows almost nine meters tall and has small white or cream-colored flowers and black or blue-black berries.
These berries are quite tart and have to be cooked to be eaten. They are commonly used to make syrups, jam, and wine and are also used in folk medicine.
The flowers of this tree have a delicate aroma and can be eaten raw or cooked.
The other varieties include the American elder, blue elderberry, dwarf elder, danewort, red-fruited elder and antelope brush.
Different parts of the elderberry tree have been used for various medicinal purposes throughout history (2).
Elderberry fruit contains quercetin, kaempferol, rutin, phenolic acids, and anthocyanins. These berries also contain flavonoids which have antioxidant properties.
The dried berries or juice of these berries have been used to treat infections, influenza, headaches, dental pain, sciatica, and heart pain.
The flowers and leaves have been used to pain relief, swelling, inflammation and to stimulate urine and induce sweating. The bark was used as a laxative, diuretic and to cause vomiting.
Nutrition facts of elderberry
One cup (145 g) of raw elderberries contains (3) –
- Calories: 106
- Fat: 1 gram (1% DV)
- Carbohydrates: 27 grams (9% DV)
- Dietary fiber: 10 grams (41% DV)
- Protein: 1 gram
- Vitamin C: 52.2 mg (87% DV)
- Vitamin A: 870 IU (17% DV)
- Vitamin B6: 0.3 mg (17% DV)
- Thiamine: .1 mg (7% DV)
- Iron: 2.3 mg (13% DV)
- Potassium: 406 mg (12% DV)
- Calcium: 55.1 mg (6% DV)
- Phosphorus: 56.6 mg (6% DV)
Elderberries also contain potent antioxidants that help reduce damage caused by oxidative stress in the body. They are also good sources of flavonols and are rich in anthocyanins that give them their dark color (4).
Health benefits of elderberry
1. Improves colds and flu symptoms
Elderberry is best known for its ability to reduce the symptoms of cold and flu. According to a systematic review from 2010, elderberries have antiviral, antioxidant and antiproliferative effects (5).
These properties of elderberries make them effective against influenza.
During a 2004 study, 60 patients suffering from influenza-like symptoms received 15 ml of elderberry syrup or placebo syrup four times a day for five days.
The results showed that the signs of the elderberry syrup group were reduced on an average four days earlier as compared to the placebo group (6).
Another study showed that elderberry supplementations could reduce cold duration and symptoms in air travelers. The study showed that the travelers that took elderberry extracts ten days before and four days after the air travel had a shorter duration of colds and reduced symptoms (7).
There are many different commercial preparations of elderberry for treatment of colds like lozenges, capsules, and liquids available.
2. Boosts the immune system
Elderberries are rich in flavonoids, especially anthocyanins which help keep the system healthy and resilient. Anthocyanins in elderberries boost the production of cytokines that act as messengers in the immune system, thereby enhancing the body’s immune response.
Viruses are coated with haemagglutinin spikes that pierce the cell walls and damage them. The bioflavonoids in elderberries inhibit this action and thus deactivate the viruses.
Elderberries are rich in vitamins A and C, which are crucial in helping the body stay healthy. The elderflower is also rich in bioflavonoids, which help boost the immune system.
3. Help treat sinus infections
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of elderberry can also help with sinus issues. During a sinus infection, the cavity around the nasal passage becomes inflamed.
Elderberry extracts are known to reduce swelling in the sinus cavity, and this improves sinus drainage and decreases nasal congestion.
A study done by the Institute of Complementary Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland, examined the use of proprietary product Sinupret which is known to contain elderberry flowers along with an antibiotic and decongestant.
According to the study, people who took the combination did better than those who did not take Sinupret (8).
4. Improves heart health
Elderberry has many positive effects on heart health. According to a 2016 study, when researchers gave anthocyanin-rich elderberry extracts to mice with high cholesterol and HDL cholesterol dysfunction, they had a significant reduction in hepatic cholesterol levels and improvement in HDL function (9).
Researchers also observed that when rats were given foods containing polyphenols extracted from elderberry, they had significant reductions in blood pressure and were less susceptible to organ damage caused by high blood pressure (10).
Elderberries also reduce the uric acid levels in the blood. Uric acid is known to increase blood pressure and has adverse effects on heart health (11).
5. Helps treat diabetes
Elderberries and elderflowers have been traditionally used to treat diabetes. According to research, the extracts of elderflowers stimulate glucose metabolism and secretion of insulin and thus help lower blood sugar.
According to a 2000 research published in the Journal of Nutrition, the aqueous extracts of elder significantly increased glucose transport, glucose oxidation, and glycogenesis in the absence of insulin (12).
During a more recent study, researchers observed that elderberries are a good source of bioactive compounds for formulations to be used as co-adjuvants in diabetes management (13).
6. Helps relieve constipation
Elderberry is a natural laxative and is traditionally used to treat constipation. A research was done by the Department of Internal Medicine and Chief of the Clinical Research Unit at Hospital de Clínicas, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil to study the efficacy of a compound containing elderberry to treat constipation.
The results of this study showed that the phytotherapic compound has laxative effectiveness and is a safe alternative for the treatment of constipation (14).
7. Treats acne and improves skin
Elderberries contain high levels of flavonoids, which provide it with potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These properties help protect healthy cells and prevent skin problems.
According to the American Nutrition Association, elderberry has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties that help make it a great acne fighter (15).
Elderberry is also rich in vitamin A, which makes it the ideal choice for fading age spots and preventing wrinkles. The anthocyanins present in elderberry give a boost to the skin health (16).
8. Helps treat UTI
Urinary tract infection is an infection of the urinary tract caused by the E. coli bacteria. Its symptoms include pelvic pain, burning sensation while peeing, and strong smelling urine.
Elderberry tea can bring relief from this condition as elderberry has natural diuretic effects (17). This property causes the kidneys to flush out toxins while increasing urination constantly.
It also helps to flush out bacteria that cause UTI and cystitis and reduces the spread of infection. Doctors also prescribe diuretics when the body is retaining too much fluid.
9. Allergy relief
The immunity-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties of elderberry also help in providing allergy relief. According to some herbalists, elderberry is one of the most effective treatments for hay-fever.
It can also be used in combination with other herbs to treat allergies (18).
10. May prevent cancer
The extracts of elderberry are rich in anthocyanins, and they have a broad spectrum of pharmacologic, therapeutic and anti-carcinogenic properties (19).
According to some test tube studies, both American and European elder have been found to possess cancer-inhibiting properties.
One study by the Department of Plant Biology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, compared the anticancer properties of both European and American elderberry.
When the extracts of both the species were tested, researchers found significant chemopreventive potential in both. In addition to flavonoids, these extracts also contained lipophilic compounds such as sesquiterpenes, iridoid monoterpene glycosides, and phytosterols (20).
11. May prevent depression
Elderberry may also have some antidepressant properties. According to a 2014 study published in the European Review of Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, when researchers fed mice with 544 mg of elderberry extract per pound, they showed improved performance and mood markers (21). Further human studies should be done to confirm their use as antidepressants.
How to use elderberry
Elderberry capsules, lozenges, and syrups are popular for treating cold and flu. Elderberry tea is also a great option, and you can easily buy tea bags or make elderberry tea at home from elderberry flowers or dried berries.
Elderberry juice is tart and refreshing and is an excellent option for those who do not prefer tea. You can also purchase elderberry-based skincare products at some stores.
Health risks and side effects
- The bark, unripe berries and seeds of elderberries contain lectins that can cause stomach problems if you overeat.
- The elderberry plant also contains cyanogenic glycosides, which in some circumstances can release cyanide.
- Cooked berries and those used in commercial preparations are safe to use. However eating raw berries, bark, leaves or roots of elderberry can cause nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
- Elderberry is generally not recommended for children below 18, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
- Avoid taking elderberry if you have an autoimmune disease.
- If you are taking medication for diabetes, diuretics, chemotherapy, immune-suppressing drugs, laxatives and theophylline, check with your doctor before consuming any elder plant products.
People have been using elderberry for its many health benefits for many years. Now scientific evidence also confirms the many health benefits of elderberry.
While elderberry syrup is taken most commonly to reduce the symptoms of cold and flu, it also shows tremendous potential for boosting the immune system, improving heart health, improving skin and even preventing cancer.
However, you should avoid taking unripe berries and consume them as syrup, juice, and tea.