Elderberry: What It Is, Health Benefits, and More
If you’re interested in immune-supporting foods, chances are you’ve come across elderberry.
This deep purple berry has recently been getting lots of buzz, and preliminary research backs its potential in improving cold and flu symptoms.
But how much do you know about elderberry and what exactly it does to support health? Read on to learn more about the headliner ingredient in our latest immunity shot.
What are elderberries?
Elderberries, the small purple-black berries that grow on Sambucus shrubs native to Europe, have been administered for centuries in traditional and folk medicine (1). They were used for colds and flus, infections, headaches, nerve pain, and more.
Today, there are many commercially prepared forms of elderberry available, including syrups, gummies, lozenges, teas, extracts, and juices. It’s possible to make some of these preparations at home, too, but only with the proper precautions. Elderberries need to be cooked before consuming. The stem/root, leaves, and bark can be toxic and should be avoided.
The deep purple color of elderberries is a sign of their high anthocyanin content. Anthocyanins are pigments found in plant foods like berries, cherries, red and purple grapes, blood oranges (which are also in the elderberry shot), and red cabbage (2). But they offer more than just a pretty color!
Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants, meaning they can fight reactive molecules called free radicals that damage cells and tissues (2). An imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body results in oxidative stress, which contributes to the development of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Elderberry for Cold and Flu
With such a high anthocyanin content, it’s no surprise that elderberries may offer health benefits. In addition to their antioxidant properties, elderberries have antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects (3, 4).
These properties may be why elderberry preparations help in treating cold and flu symptoms, but the exact mechanism by which elderberry works is not fully understood. Test tube and rodent studies suggest that elderberry extract inhibits the spread of influenza viruses and may prevent infection by stimulating immune response (4, 5).
Research in humans, though limited, also offers promising results. A review of randomized, controlled trials, in a total of 180 participants, found that elderberry supplementation significantly reduced upper respiratory symptoms from colds and flus (6).
Another study in 312 passengers on an overseas flight from Australia showed that taking elderberry extract (300 mg, 3 times a day for a period before and after the flight) led to a significant reduction in cold duration and severity (in those who developed colds) compared to a placebo (7). Finally, one trial in 60 people with the flu found that those who took 60 ml of elderberry syrup a day were relieved of symptoms an average of four days earlier than those who took a placebo (8).
However, studies on the use of elderberry to treat cold and flu symptoms have used varying forms and dosages, and most have small sample sizes. At least one randomized, controlled trial found that elderberry extract does not reduce flu severity (9).
So, while preliminary results are promising, more extensive, large-scale research is needed.
The Bottom Line
Adding elderberry juice to your routine is one way to consume more antioxidant compounds that may support the immune system. And it may even help improve cold and flu symptoms.
Still, at the end of the day, you shouldn’t rely on elderberry alone to prevent or treat any health condition, including colds and the flu. Elderberry seems to have promising benefits, but its efficacy is understudied. It should be regarded as a supplement, not a treatment.
Eating a healthy diet with a variety of plant foods, incorporating regular exercise, and keeping stress levels in check are some of the best ways to maintain a strong immune system. On top of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, our elderberry shot can be one more tool in your wellness arsenal!
So Good So You and its blog materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. All material on the So Good So You blog is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programs.
Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD. Registered Dietitian and self-proclaimed veggies enthusiast, Lizzie partners with So Good So You and serves and a culinary nutrition expert. Keep an eye out for plant-based recipes, ingredient breakdowns, and much more from Lizzie.