You may have heard that elderberry provides immune support, but do you know why? Read on to learn more about the science behind why elderberry helps boost your immune system
and how they came to be known as nature’s medicine chest.
What Are Elderberries?
Whenever you come across the term “elderberry,” you should know that it actually refers to a wide variety of black and blue (or dark purple!) berry plants that come from the indigenous Sambucus tree. Although this plant can be found in the warmer parts of Europe, North America, Asia and Northern Africa, the most common type of elderberry is the European elderberry, also known as Sambucus nigra. The berries have a sharp, tart flavor by themselves, but make for delicious syrups when properly prepared!
The elderberry has stood the tests of time as one of the most widely used medicinal plants
for immune support. Phytonutrients in the berry have even been primarily used as antiviral agents for colds and influenza. Even Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, ended up referring to the plant as “nature’s medicine chest.” That means elderberries for immune support have been a hot topic since the 5th century BCE!
So, what makes this small black fruit so special? We’re going to take a deep dive into the story behind the elderberry for the immune system and how it became a household name for its traditional immune support.
Elderberries in Traditional Medicine
Beyond the long history of using elderberry for making wines and preserves, the berries and flowers of this plant have been consumed for thousands of years in many different cultures for their natural, powerful effect on the immune system. Any time you hear someone say that the elderberry provides traditional immune support, they are referring to many, many years of medical use throughout the world.
Remember, before modern medicine began to emerge in the 18th century, our ancestors used food-based tonics
to address medical concerns. In the Middle Ages, for example, the elderberry was considered a Holy Tree for health restoration and aiding one’s longevity. It also has a recorded history of traditional use in Native American culture as well as amongst herbalists in Europe. The earliest uses of elderberries as a boost for immune support actually can be traced way back to Ancient Egypt!
The seemingly magical effect that the elderberry has on the immune system is notably described by botanist William Coles in Adam in Eden
, a detailed history book of plants, fruits, herbs and flowers that was published in the 1600s. He declared that “There is hardly a Disease from the Head to the Foot but it cures. It is profitable for the Headache, for Ravings and Wakings, Hypocondriak and Melancholly, the Falling-sickness, Catarrhes, Deafnesse, Faintnesse and Feacours”. Sixteenth-century doctor Michael Ettmeuller even called the elder berry “the medicine chest of the country people”. In other words, the thought back then was that the elderberry could help with just about anything!
Thereafter, in the colonial period in American history, the elderberry was a prized remedy for treating cough and flu-like symptoms.
Women passed on generations of recipes using herbs like the elderberry to help their families stay healthy. Adding a spoonful of their elderberry-based concoction into a glass of warm water was a common way to help try to ward off the cold. According to The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry, an elderberry boost was also used to help reduce fevers during these times too.
As you learn more about the modern research detailing the effects of elderberry consumption for the immune system, you’ll see that there are some promising results suggesting that the elderberry for immune support may deserve its title as nature’s medicine chest after all!
Elderberries in Immunity Research
In the last two decades, more and more studies are being published about the wonders of elderberry. Extracts of the fruit have been featured in several notable in vitro studies to account for its immune-enhancing properties.
One in vitro study of three different elderberry extracts resulted in the activation of a healthy immune system by increasing inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine production. The elderberry extracts even outperformed the other herbal remedies featured in the study -- Protec and Chizukit, which are products recognized as immune enhancers containing propolis and Echinacea. Cytokines are one of the main components of the immune system, so this study is quite critical in the analysis of elderberry for immune support.
Another study of the immune-modulating effects
of elderberry fruit extracts found that elderberry can enhance the immune activity of L. acidophilus
on dendritic cells. Dendritic cells are key regulators within the immune system, and this study suggests that elderberries may truly exert antiviral activity! Other studies found that infusing elderberry leaves exerted an inhibitory effect on the growth of both bacteria and yeasts as well.
There have been great findings in pre-clinical studies involving elderberry as well! One study on healthy and diabetic rats showed that the rats that received elderberry extract saw significant increases in the number and production of lymphocytes! T-Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell, so they are an essential part of the immune system that focuses on dealing with foreign particles. This animal study shows the incredible potential of elderberry extract in dramatically improving the body’s immune defenses
Elderberries in Clinical Studies
As exciting as the in vitro and animal studies are, you’re probably wondering about how human clinical studies have shown the exciting benefits of elderberry for immune support. We’re pleased to tell you that the results have been very positive!
One study of 27 people, in which 23 were lab confirmed with influenza B, saw significant improvement in flu symptoms
for subjects who were given elderberry extract. The difference between the elderberry group and the placebo group were noteworthy too: 14 out of 15 of the subjects in the treatment group saw large improvement in their flu symptoms just two days after their initial diagnosis, with complete symptom resolution in 13 out of 15 of them after three days! On the other hand, only four out of 14 subjects in the placebo group saw symptom resolution within three days. Elderberry seemed to have made quite the difference!
Another study of 60 patients suffering from influenza-like symptoms showed that subjects who consumed elderberry syrup for immune system reported “pronounced improvement” after an average of three to four days, while the placebo group reported the same level of improvement after as much as eight days. So, people who consumed the syrup felt relief from their flu symptoms four whole days earlier on average than those who did not.
When looking at immune health, it’s also good to consider air travel, as it is known for being stressful and putting people’s respiratory health at risk. A study of 312 air travelers coming from Australia suggests that elderberry extract can significantly reduce the cold duration and the severity of symptoms experienced by air travelers. In this study, sick passengers who took 900mg of elderberry extract capsules three times daily recovered faster and had less severe cold and flu symptoms
. We want to highlight the respiratory symptom scores, which were calculated by the researchers based on the number of cold episodes, how long the episodes lasted, etc. The placebo group had an average symptom score of 585; the people who took elderberry had an average score of 247, less than half the placebo group’s score!
Putting some of these human studies together, you’ll find that elderberry may not only decrease the severity of your symptoms, but also the actual duration of the cold. More clinical reviews are needed to fully explore the elderberry’s potential in immune support, but from what we’ve seen so far, people taking elderberry for immune support tend to feel less sick for less time!
The Secret to Immune Support from Elderberry: Anthocyanins
Elderberries have incredibly high biological activity thanks to some of its key components. That includes flavanols, phenolic acids and most importantly, anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid that happens to give the elderberry its striking dark purple color. They’re also known for their potent antioxidant support.
A lab study showed that drinking 400 mL of elderberry juice can significantly increase antioxidant activity. In this particular study, the subjects saw this increase within just one hour of ingesting the juice! This is important in itself because increased antioxidant activity can possibly prevent and reduce free radical damage, and high levels of free radicals have been linked to a multitude of illnesses, including chronic diseases.
One important in vitro study used to identify the antiviral features of elderberry fruit found that the elderberry extract inhibited human influenza infection thanks to its flavonoids’ activity. The flavonoids in elderberries bind to H1N1 virions, and when those virions are bound, they are unable to infect host cells. Simply put, flavonoids like anthocyanins in elderberries block the ability of the virus to cause the infection. This study is so remarkable because it went on to compare the influenza inhibition activity of the elderberry flavonoids to a popular anti-influenza medication!
Researchers at the University of Sydney also found that the elderberry’s antiviral activity can be traced back to its anthocyanins. In their research, they found that the phytochemicals from the elderberry juice used in their study were effective in preventing the virus from infecting cells. They additionally found that the same phytochemicals were also effective in inhibiting the cells even after a cell had already been infected with the virus. That means the anthocyanins in elderberries can be attributed to helping to diminish the chance of overall viral infection!
In summary, anthocyanins are considered the key to elderberry’s power for immune support because of their antioxidant and protective potential, as well as their display of antiviral and antibacterial activity.
Elderberries and Vitamin C
While the anthocyanins in elderberry are what really pack the beneficial punch, the elderberry is also a source of vitamin C. Vitamin C is usually the first nutrient we think of when it comes to strengthening the immune system. After all, it’s an essential vitamin and antioxidant! Your body cannot naturally produce vitamin C on its own, so you must make sure to get enough vitamin C every day in order to support your body’s natural defenses.
Elderberry is a great way to supplement your vitamin C intake. Per every 100 grams of elderberry fruit, you can get up to 60% of the recommended daily vitamin C intake! So again, even though anthocyanins play a huge role in the elderberry’s potential to positively impact your immune system, vitamin C is still key to supporting healthy immune system responses.
Modern Uses of Elderberries
Today, elderberries have become a popular wellness routine addition. There are all sorts of different ways you can consume this little fruit and reap the incredible tried-and-true benefits. Many stores offer elderberry capsules and lozenges, which are a convenient and quick way to have a bit of elderberry. However, if you’re looking for something more fun and delicious, you can go for great-tasting elderberry syrups or gummies (or, make gummies using the syrup!
It’s also possible to whip up your own batch of elderberry syrup, but make sure to properly prepare the fruit. Uncooked elderberries, including any part of the bark, leaves and root, can be toxic because the elderberry plant contains lectins, which is a protein that may cause an upset stomach. Properly prepared elderberry products are very safe to use, so any elderberry products you may see in pharmacies or supermarkets are likely nontoxic.
All of this incredible preliminary research suggests that elderberries may help to relieve symptoms of the flu and other upper respiratory infections. More and more studies are being conducted as elderberry continues to shine in the traditional immune support spotlight!
So know that you have learned everything there is to know about elderberries and immunity, are you ready to give this powerful little fruit a try?
If you’re looking for a reliable way to implement elderberry into your daily routine, we recommend taking Elderberry Soothing Syrup
. Our delectable syrup is safe for kids 2 and up, and its warm combination of honey, cinnamon and cloves makes for the perfect traditional immune supplement! Learn more here
What are elderberries?
Elderberries are black and blue berry plants that come from the indigenous Sambucus
tree. They’re one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the world, and they continued to be touted for their traditional immune support capabilities. Today, these little fruits are still consumed as a way to support the immune systems of adults and children alike.
How have elderberries been used historically?
All parts of the elderberry plant have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. Elderberries were traditionally used to treat cold and flu-like symptoms and respiratory conditions, amongst many other ailments for adults and children alike.
What can elderberries do for my immune system?
Elderberries contain both vitamin C and anthocyanins that may provide antioxidant support, which could then help support healthy immune function. The anthocyanins found in elderberries have been shown to have antiviral and antibacterial properties in addition to their antioxidant potential. According to human clinical studies thus far, consuming elderberries may decrease cold and flu symptom severity and duration!
How can I add elderberries to my daily routine?
There are many ways to incorporate elderberries into your diet. There are daily supplements like capsules and gummies that contain elderberry concentrate. There are also syrups, like Elderberry Soothing Syrup
, which contains 2.362 grams of elderberry extract in every teaspoon.
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Baker, M. (1928). Discovering the folklore of plants . Buckinghamshire, U.K.: Shire Publications.
Grieve, M. (1971). A modern herbal (originally published in 1931) New York: Dover Publications.
Zakay-Rones Z, Varsano N, Zlotnik M, et al. Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama. J Altern Complement Med 1995;1:361-369.
- University of Sydney. "Elderberry compounds could help minimize flu symptoms, study suggests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 April 2019. .