Immune-Boosting Benefits of Elderberry (& How I Use It)

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Elderberries-Natural remedy and immune booster for flu season
Wellness Mama » Blog » Natural Remedies » Immune-Boosting Benefits of Elderberry (& How I Use It)

I’ve written before about using elderberries to help beat the seasonal flu. In our house, we are always trying to find ways to support the immune system so we can keep from getting sick (or at least recover more quickly).

Elderberries are a great way to do that!

What Is Elderberry?

Elderberries have gained popularity in recent years for their use in alleviating and avoiding the flu and boosting the immune system.

Elderberries are the fruit from the elder bush that are harvested in the fall. There are a few varieties of elderberry but the one most commonly used for health benefits is the European variety, black elderberry (Sambucus nigra). They grow most commonly in woodlands and are found in Europe, Western Asia, North America, and North Africa.

Black elderberries have a long history of use in folk medicine. The elderberry fruit is often used for preserves, syrups, and tinctures, while the bark and flowers are also useful. The bark has been used traditionally as a diuretic, laxative, and to induce vomiting. The flowers are helpful for inducing sweating (to help break a fever) and for skin health. The leaves and stems are toxic.

Health Benefits of Elderberry

Elderberry has been used for generations for its health benefits. Most people know that elderberry is used for colds and flu, and here is why:

Fights the Influenza Virus and Cold Viruses

Elderberry has a long history of use for respiratory illnesses and modern science backs up this use.

Elderberry has been shown to actually fight the virus that causes the flu. A 2004 study found that elderberry extract had anti-viral properties against the flu. Participants in the study were less likely to need rescue medications and symptoms were relieved on average 4 days sooner than those who didn’t use elderberry. Additionally, elderberry is effective against 10 strains of the flu, according to a 2009 study.

A 2017 review confirmed these findings and also found that elderberry has some effect against bacteria as well.

Elderberry fights colds as well. Elderberry reduced the duration of cold symptoms in air travelers in a 2016 clinical trial.

This popular berry is an overall great help for most respiratory illnesses. A meta-analysis published in 2019 concluded that elderberry is “an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.”

Because of this, it’s possible that elderberry is more helpful against the flu than vaccines since vaccines only target specific strains.

Inflammation Modulating

Elderberry also modulates inflammation. There is a lot of concern about whether elderberry causes too much of an immune boost (causing more harm than good). This is referred to as a “cytokine storm”. But it looks like elderberry is not much of a concern. The reason is that elderberry is not just inflammation stimulating, but it’s inflammation-modulating according to a 2017 article. That means that elderberry isn’t likely to keep boosting the immune system (even when it’s at peak performance. When the immune system steps over the line into overreaction, elderberry helps bring it back to baseline.

According to Pediatrician Dr. Elisa Song in a podcast episode, we don’t need to be overly concerned about elderberry causing a cytokine storm immune response. While elderberry does stimulate the immune system to release inflammatory cytokines, this is a good thing. This is the kind of inflammation that works to repair the body.

But elderberry also produces anti-inflammatory cytokines. These help to keep inflammation from getting out of hand. So elderberry is still a great choice for a natural cold and flu remedy. Dr. Song recommends using elderberry only during illness, rather than as a daily supplement though.

Nutrient Profile

Elderberries also have many nutrients in them, making them a great addition to your favorite meal. Fresh elderberries are not safe to eat because they contain cyanogenic glycosides which are sugars that can generate cyanide. But cooked elderberries are safe to eat.

Elderberries contain vitamin C and antioxidants, phenolic acids, flavonols, and anthocyanins. Both the berries and the flowers contain these nutrients in differing amounts.

Elderberries contain more antioxidants than blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, and blackberries, making them an obvious choice for immune support and free radical control.

May Help Metabolic Issues

Metabolic disease is an increasing concern in modern society and includes illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Elderberry may play a role in helping improve these issues.

A 2009 systematic review explains how elderberry juice can have a positive influence on fat and cholesterol in the blood (which may play a part in heart disease). Also, a 2011 study found that elderberry can help with blood pressure.

According to a 2015 review, elderberry’s antioxidant content can help improve blood sugar and heart-related issues by improving inflammation. It also lowers uric acid in the blood which affects blood pressure.

More research is needed to know exactly how elderberry can impact heart health and blood sugar health, but this research is promising.

Are Elderberries Safe?

As mentioned, elderberries are safe to ingest when cooked. When they are raw (or unripe), they contain cyanide-producing compounds that can cause side effects such as nauseous, vomiting, and diarrhea. However, many herbalists say that dried elderberries don’t cause the same symptoms as fresh berries. Ask your doctor before deciding if dried elderberries are safe for you.

How to Use Elderberries

Elderberry is simple to use at home. It can be used in many forms including syrup, tea, tincture, pill, gummies, and lozenges. Here are some ideas for using elderberry:

  • Dried elderberries can be used to make a homemade syrup that boosts immune function and helps the body avoid or recover from the flu. Here is my recipe for homemade elderberry syrup that kids love!
  • This syrup is also good on homemade pancakes!
  • Dried elderberries can be used to make a tincture. This is a great idea for those who want the power of the syrup without the honey.
  • Dried elderberries can also be added to muffins or pancakes for a berry flavor similar to blueberries but not quite as sweet.
  • Dried elderberries or elderflowers can be used to make a delicious tea (I’d add honey or stevia since it is somewhat sour).
  • A pre-made syrup is available for acute flu symptoms, but the homemade version works just as well and is much less expensive in my experience. “Standard dose is 1/2 tsp to 1 tsp for kids and 1/2 Tbsp to 1 Tbsp for adults. If the flu does strike, we take the normal dose every 2-3 hours instead of once a day until symptoms disappear.” For our family, this is our first line of defense against the flu and we haven’t gotten it in several years.
  • In culinary uses or herbal remedies.

I like to keep dried elderberry on hand so I can make these remedies when my family needs them. Elderberry syrup will last for a few weeks to a few months when refrigerated, and other preparations like tinctures and gummies will last even longer.

Where to Buy Elderberries

You can grow your own black elderberries if you prefer and collect them each fall. If you choose to do this, make sure you collect only ripe berries. Always make sure your source for elderberries is reliable and you aren’t getting unripe berries.

I’ve always bought my elderberries online, as I haven’t found a reliable local source to purchase them from. I definitely recommend buying early in the season, as they’ve grown in popularity so much over the years that they always tend to sell out when you need them the most, in winter during flu and cold season. These are the ones I normally purchase and one pound can last over a year even when we are all taking elderberry syrup regularly. I’ve also used pre-made elderberry syrup in the past if one of us got sick and I didn’t have any homemade syrup on hand, but it is a lot more expensive and I much prefer the homemade version.

Elderberries can be wildcrafted and they grow in many places. I always encourage anyone to research and talk to an herbalist before using any wildcrafted herb to make sure that the correct herb is being used in a safe way. Elderberries or other herbs are not a substitute for medical treatment when needed and as always, check with a doctor or healthcare professional for any illness or before using any remedy.

This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

Have you ever used elderberries? What’s your favorite use for them? Share below!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


112 responses to “Immune-Boosting Benefits of Elderberry (& How I Use It)”

  1. Josie Avatar

    Hi Katie, do you know how many tsp it would require to get 700-1000 mg of elderberry extract with your recipe? Thanks!

  2. Mic Avatar

    Aren’t the stems poisonous? If a stem piece should accidentally get into the DIY syrup while cooking, is that dangerous?

  3. Angela Avatar

    What are your thoughts about taking elderberry syrup year-round? Good idea or not?

  4. Mike Avatar

    Where do you live? We harvest them from the wild. Most likely if you have mountains near where you can go for a drive and a short hike you can find some. Here in Utah they are plentiful.

    1. Linda P Avatar

      Thanks, Mike! Let me know next time you get a bunch and I’ll buy them from you, haha! I live in New Jersey, right outside NYC, so I’m not sure of the local availability.

  5. Linda P. Avatar

    I use your recipe to make elderberry syrup for my family every fall/winter. I had trouble getting elderberries last year and I’ve been waiting for them to come back in stock at Mountain Rose Herbs for almost an entire year! The Frontier brand you mentioned is also sold out on their website. I avoid Amazon for these types of products because I feel like it’s impossible to know where it’s actually coming from. That being said, I searched Amazon anyway because I’m not having luck anywhere else and Frontier is sold out/backordered there too! Do you have any other website suggestions for where to order them? Do you have any tips for ordering them on Amazon to know for sure they are coming from a trusted source? Thank you!!

    1. Denise Avatar

      We do during the cold season or if there is something going around.

  6. Becky Avatar

    I have been using your recipe for your syrup. I have heard you can put Star Anis in the syrup. Have you ever heard of this?

  7. Adi Avatar

    I can’t find dried elderberries anywhere. They seem to be out of stock at the reliable sources. Any idea what’s going on?

  8. Mandy Avatar

    I just made my first batch of Elderberry syrup. I bought the dried berries from frontier through Amazon. When I opened them I noticed right away that they have a very unpleasant odor. A mix between poop and sour milk. I contacted the company and was told the berries have an unpleasant odor, and that they are fine. The problem is, even with honey it’s unpleasant odor makes the syrup unbearable. Has anyone else experienced this?

    1. Cindy Avatar

      Hi Mandy,
      I had the same experience the first time I made the syrup, my whole house stunk so bad it was awful! I decided that if I did it again I would be cooking outside on a turkey cooker base. I think the first time I made it I misread the recipe and didn’t have enough water in it and that’s why it smelled so bad, and it was bad! I recently saw a recipe on Pinterest for elderberry syrup using instant pot and made some more. Definitely the way to go, because yes, the berries have a funny smell, and I believe it contained the smell. The recipe I used said to cook for 7minutes and another recipe said 20 minutes, I think I will cook the 20 minutes next time. Also, I think elderberry syrup is an acquired taste.

    2. Denise Avatar

      Ew I bought the same berries from the same company and they smell nothing like poop or milk. Did you go to the reviews to see if anyone else said something like that. That’s gross.

  9. Cindy Avatar

    I just made some elderberry syrup using my instant pot. The recipe I used said to cook for 7 minutes, do you think that is a sufficient amount of time?

  10. addie Avatar

    Have you seen/read about any negative side effects for taking elderberry over a longer time (such as during flu season) as a preventative? I have only come across the info that it is safe to use for 5 days.

  11. Mike Avatar

    No that is simply NOT true Laura. Please don’t spread such nonsense. I don’t say this to be mean but simply because so many believe the things they read somewhere that have no basis in truth. Poison is a substance that will kill you if ingested. Look at all the comments on here about people eating them both raw and cooked. They are NOT poisonous. Toxin is something like a poison that will cause similar harm in the body (think aluminum, mercury…) but the body is also equipped to remove toxins. Most of us do fine with this removal when needed.
    Elderberries have some emetic properties that for some people will induce vomiting. This is NOT because the plant is poisonous but rather because in larger quantities it will induce vomiting which at times is the bodies natural reaction to remove toxins.
    There is only 1 story that comes anywhere close to a discussion of “poisoning” when related to elderberry and no deaths occurred but instead one person who drank a large amount of freshly pressed elderberry juice was hospitalized for throwing up. He was released the next day and recovered just fine. So, NO, Elderberry is NOT poisonous.
    Yes, be smart and take care in quantity consumed, especially if it is new for you but it is nothing to be afraid of. I have personally spoken to people who even use the leaves and bark to make tea and ahve had no ill effects and it works as do the berries to treat flu and illness.

  12. Laura Avatar

    NO! Please don’t ever eat elderberries. They have to be cooked. The stems and leaves can be poisonous.

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