Elderberry fruit are rich in powerful immune-boosting nutrients.

Top 6 Elderberry Benefits

Chances are, you’ve heard about the health benefits of elderberry extracts and elderberry syrups for helping to boost your immune system during cold and flu season. While definitive research is ongoing, many people swear by its healing properties.

But elderberries didn’t become popular overnight. They have been used to support the immune system and treat various ailments for centuries—they are even mentioned in ancient writings from scholars such as Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder. The Egyptians used elderberry to improve skin health and complexion and to heal burns and scars. In folk medicine, these potent berries have been used to treat everything from common colds and flu to headache, dental pain, digestive upset, nerve pain and rheumatism.

Today, elderberry syrup and elderberry extract are most commonly used to support immune system health and help the body fight off common colds, flu and other respiratory infections. The high antioxidant activity of the elderberry fruit and flowers is believed to be what gives them their therapeutic properties. This fruit may have many other promising health benefits, as well, including a potential role in supporting heart health, managing blood sugar, boosting brain health, and preventing cancer.

How so? Let’s dive in.

What are elderberries?

Elderberries are berries that grow on the Sambucus nigra tree. There are over 40 types of Sambucus trees that grow in various parts of the world, including Europe, Asia and North Africa. The Sambucus nigra, also known as European elderberry or black elder, is the most common.

The Sambucus nigra tree typically grows to a height of 8-20 feet and has white flowers and clusters of glossy black-purple berries. Black elderberry has a tart, earthy flavor, and it isn’t very sweet. The berries can be cooked and used to make jams, jellies and pie filling. Sambucus nigra fruits and flowers can also be used to make elderberry juice and elderberry wine.

Beyond its culinary applications, elderberry is also used medicinally for immune support and other health benefits. The berries and flowers have traditionally been used to prevent and treat respiratory infections. The berries are packed with anthocyanins, the pigments that give the berries their characteristic black-purple color. These anthocyanins have powerful antioxidant properties and may also promote a healthy response to inflammation.

What is in elderberry that is good for you?

According to the USDA, one cup of elderberries contains 106 calories, 27 grams of carbohydrates, and less than 1 gram each of fat and protein.

Elderberries also boast an impressive array of powerful antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber that contribute to their health benefits. These beneficial compounds include:

  • Polyphenols. In particular, anthocyanins. They give the berries their characteristic dark color and have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Flavanols. Elderberry contains several flavanols, including rutin, quercetin and isoquercetin.
  • Phenolic acids. Elderberries contain a significant amount of phenolic acids that can help alleviate oxidative stress in the body.
  • Vitamin C. Elderberry is a very good source of vitamin C, with one cup of containing 52 milligrams.
  • Vitamin A. Elderberry is a good source of vitamin A, with one cup containing 870 IU.
  • Fiber. Elderberry is a very good source of dietary fiber, with one cup containing 10 grams.

6 benefits of elderberry

Elderberry may be beneficial to our health in a variety of ways—we use the word “may” because this powerful, antioxidant-rich berry has not yet been studied extensively in humans, and most of the studies that have been conducted are small. That being said, initial findings suggest that this fruit not only offers the immune support it’s already famous for, but a number of other benefits to boot.

  1. May help alleviate flu and cold symptoms. Studies in humans have evaluated elderberry in the prevention and treatment of the influenza A (flu) virus and other respiratory illnesses. There is some evidence that elderberry can help treat colds and flu, but the available studies are small, so more are needed. In a randomized placebo-controlled trial, 60 patients (aged 18-54) suffering from flu symptoms for 48 hours or less received elderberry syrup or placebo syrup four times a day for 5 days. Those taking the elderberry syrup felt relief from their symptoms 4 days earlier, on average, than those who received the placebo.

    In another randomized placebo-controlled trial, 312 air travelers took elderberry extract a few days before, during and after flying overseas. Those who took the elderberry extract experienced less severe cold and flu symptoms and recovered faster compared with the placebo group.

  2. High in antioxidants. Elderberry contains a cornucopia of phytochemicals, including polyphenols and flavonoids. These valuable botanical compounds have powerful antioxidant activity that helps neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage DNA, cell membranes and other parts of cells. Oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity. This imbalance contributes to a number of diseases over time, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It also contributes to aging.

    Black elderberries have some of the highest concentrations of polyphenols, anthocyanins and flavonoids among all berries. In addition to neutralizing free radicals, these phytonutrients offer a powerful boost to your immune system, helping to fight off invading germs and keeping your body healthy.

  3. Has anti-inflammatory effects. Chronic inflammation is associated with many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, cancer, arthritis and bowel disease. But the anthocyanins in berries such as elderberry have anti-inflammatory effects. So a diet rich in polyphenols like those contained in elderberry can help lower overall inflammation levels and thus optimize health.
  1. May be beneficial for heart health. Elderberry shows promise for improving heart health. Hypertension (high blood pressure) is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease. Elderberry may play a role in relaxing the lining of blood vessels, thus helping to regulate blood pressure. Several studies examining the effects of dietary polyphenols on blood pressure have shown promising results, with diets high in polyphenols lowering blood pressure.
  2. Could improve blood sugar metabolism. Several of these factors we’ve been discussing, such as inflammation, oxidative stress, heart disease and heart health—including high blood pressure—are, in many people, closely tied to blood sugar levels and even to type 2 diabetes.

    Elderberry and its anthocyanin-rich extracts are a potentially promising approach for many of these issues. Preclinical research on elderberry, and human studies of anthocyanin intake, show benefits that could be expected to improve heart health and blood sugar-related concerns.

  3. May be beneficial for brain health. While several factors influence cognitive function, the foods we eat daily are a crucial part of keeping our minds sharp. The anthocyanins found in elderberries are among the many nutrients that support brain health. Research shows that anthocyanin-rich berries may help to slow cognitive decline and improve cognitive performance in older adults. Berries are a key component of the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay) diet, a diet full of brain-healthy foods that has been shown to help preserve cognitive function.

Which type of elderberry is best?

One of the nice things about immune-supporting elderberry is that you can find it in so many different forms. Which form you decide to take mostly comes down to personal preference.

Some options:

  • Elderberry standardized extract is a concentrated form of elderberry that has the benefit of being standardized to guarantee a certain amount of anthocyanins per dose.
  • Elderberry juice concentrates (often called syrups) are also popular. However, not all are standardized for beneficial anthocyanin content. It’s a good idea to confirm that they contain an adequate dose of concentrated elderberry to make sure you are enjoying the health benefits you desire.
  • Immune benefits of different forms of elderberry extract, including syrups, capsules and lozenges, have been demonstrated in humans. However, more research is needed to determine if one form of elderberry is superior to another.

Can you have elderberry every day?

Yes, elderberry is safe for daily use. The flavonoids and anthocyanins that are abundant in elderberry are also abundant in a healthy plant-based diet and in other health-supporting fruits like blueberries, cherries and raspberries.

If taken as a preventative dose, elderberry is commonly taken as one capsule or 1-2 teaspoons daily. Life Extension recommends 600-720 mg daily for immune system support.

Who should not consume elderberry?

Elderberry has not been studied in pregnant and lactating women; therefore, it isn’t recommended for anyone who is pregnant (or may become pregnant) or nursing. Although elderberry hasn’t been shown to cause any harm in these groups, there is not enough data to confirm that it’s safe.

There is no good evidence that elderberry overstimulates the immune system or that it increases inflammation or autoimmune activity. In fact, studies show it likely works against inflammation! Although this myth about elderberry has been repeated in many places, it was based on older studies not conducted on humans. A recent systematic review of the scientific literature of studies in humans found no evidence that elderberry overstimulates the immune system. If you have an autoimmune disease, the safest bet is to consult with your health care practitioner before taking any elderberry extracts.

Does elderberry have any side effects?

As long as elderberry is not consumed raw, it is very safe. Raw elderberries, as well as the seeds, leaves and bark of the elderberry tree, should not be eaten. They contain toxic substances (cyanogenic glycosides, e.g. sambunigrin) that can cause adverse symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Large quantities of these toxins could cause serious illness. Interestingly, these parts of the plant were used historically as a laxative and to induce vomiting.

Fortunately, the toxic substances found in raw elderberries are safely eliminated with cooking, so you don’t have to worry about side effects. However, the branches, bark and leaves should not be used in cooking or juicing.

How to get elderberry into your diet

Elderberries are not an edible berry like blueberries, raspberries or strawberries. They can’t be picked and eaten raw—they need to be cooked to be safe. The best and safest way to get elderberry into your diet is to take a form of elderberry concentrate.

Elderberry is often recommended in combination with vitamin C and zinc, both of which also promote immune health. Studies show that zinc and vitamin C may shorten the duration of symptoms in respiratory tract infections. The combination of all three nutrients together may provide a bigger boost to your immune system than one alone.

About the Author: Sonali Ruder, DO, is a board-certified emergency medicine doctor, classically trained chef, cookbook author and founder of the popular website, TheFoodiePhysician.com. Dr. Ruder is a contributing writer, recipe developer, spokesperson, and health and wellness expert for several national magazines, websites, and organizations. Her passion is giving people the tools to take control of their health, starting in the kitchen!

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