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.
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.
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!