Humans love to put things in categories…I suppose it helps us feel like our world is more organized that way. In the realm of food and nutrition, we love ideas like: carrots are good for your eyes or bananas are good for muscle cramps. Although their reputations may be deserved, it’s unfair (and inaccurate) to limit the benefits of any particular fruit, vegetable, or herb to a specific condition or body part. Another example of this phenomenon is the case of Sambucus nigra, also known as Elderberry. If you ask anyone with even cursory knowledge about herbal medicine, they’ll tell you that Elderberry is good for the flu. And it’s true…but that’s not all. Elderberry is a multi-purpose herbal remedy with benefits to the immune system and a whole lot more. In this piece, my UpWellness team did a great job shining the light on the lesser-known benefits of Elderberry.
The use of elderberries as an herbal remedy dates back to the Ancient Egyptians who employed them to heal burns and improve their complexion. Native Americans used them to remedy infections. Today, elderberries and elderflowers are most commonly used as a supplement to tackle the symptoms of colds and the flu. There is also evidence that elderberries have additional health benefits for your skin, hair, heart, and more that we will explore below.
What is elderberry?
Elderberry refers to several different varieties of the Sambucus tree, a flowering plant in the Adoxaceae family. The most common type is the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra), also referred to as black elder. This tree is found native in Europe and is also grown in some other parts of the world. Reaching up to 30 feet in height, the black elder has small white or cream flowers that are known as elderflowers. Elderberries are black or blue and appear in bunches.
Other varieties include the American elder, dwarf elder, blue elderberry, danewort, red-fruited elder, and antelope brush.
Using elderberries for colds and flu
Although the studies are small, there is some evidence to support the use of elderberries to reduce the severity and duration of the common cold and the flu.
- A 2010 review found that elderberries may have powerful antioxidant and antiviral properties.
- One placebo-controlled, double-blind study found that 93.3% of the people taking an elderberry preparation had marked improvement in flu symptoms two days after taking it. The placebo group took six days for symptoms to begin to dissipate.
- Another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study out of Norway had similar results. Participants either received a placebo syrup or elderberry syrup after having reported having flu-like symptoms for less than 48 hours. Patients who took the syrup had relief of symptoms four days sooner than the group that took the placebo. In addition, patients who took the syrup took fewer over-the-counter medications.
- According to researchers, people who use elderberries as a natural remedy have elevated levels of antibodies to fight the flu virus. This shows promise that elderberries may not only be useful against nasty flu symptoms, but they could also help prevent influenza infection, to begin with.
- Elderberries contain hemagglutinin protein that has been shown to stop a virus’s ability to replicate by inhibiting its ability to break through the cell wall. What this means is that if elderberries are taken before exposure, they can keep the virus from causing an infection. If elderberries are taken after the infection, they can keep the virus from spreading, which will reduce symptom duration.
Make your own elderberry syrup
You can pick your own elderberries if you have access to them, visit a local farmers market, or purchase dried elderberries online. Avoid eating raw elderberries as they can upset your stomach.
- ½ cup dried elderberries
- 2 cups of filtered water
- 1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger
- ½ cup honey
- Place the elderberries, water, and ginger in a small pan and bring mixture to a boil. Turn down the temperature and allow the mixture to simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. This should take about 20 minutes.
- Place the cooked berry mixture in a bowl and pour it through a fine strainer to remove any skins. Press the berries in the strainer, using the back of a spoon, to remove the juice.
- Allow the juice to cool to room temperature. Stir in the honey and whisk to blend.
- Store the syrup in a glass jar in the fridge where it will keep for two weeks.
- You can also freeze the syrup.
Elderberries may be good for your heart
Studies have found a connection between the consumption of elderberries and heart and blood vessel health.
- Elderberry juice may reduce the amount of fat in the blood and lower cholesterol. In one study, participants were given 400 mg of elderberry extract three times a day.
- In one study, mice with elevated cholesterol were fed black elderberries in their diet. This was found to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the liver and aorta but not in the blood.
- Additional studies in rats who were fed foods containing polyphenols extracted from elderberry had a drop in blood pressure and were less likely to have organ damage caused by high blood pressure.
- Elevated uric acid in the blood is linked to increased blood pressure and negative impacts on heart health. Elderberries have been found to reduce levels of uric acid in the blood
- Elderberry can help to balance blood sugar levels and increase insulin secretion. Since type 2 diabetes is a major risk factor for heart and vascular disease, blood sugar control is instrumental in avoiding these conditions. One study found that elderberry flowers can help to lower blood sugar levels. Research conducted on diabetic rats has shown a link between improved blood sugar control and elderberry.
Elderberries can improve skin and hair health
Elderberries can help you achieve a clear and vibrant complexion and healthy, shiny hair.
- Elderberries are loaded with anti-aging and free radical busting properties that are good for your skin. It is the anthocyanins in the berries that not only give them their vibrant red color but also feed the skin. This compound protects against skin damage and can restore and rejuvenate skin.
- Elderberries are naturally detoxifying and can help remedy skin conditions such as acne, boils, and scars.
- Elderflower oil mixed with your favorite oils can help remedy scalp problems, treat split ends, and encourage hair growth.
Other health benefits of elderberry
Although more research on the expanded health benefits of elderberry needs to be conducted, these are some additional reported benefits. Keep in mind, most of these have limited scientific evidence:
- Cancer-fighting: Both European and American elderberry varieties have been found to contain some cancer-inhibiting properties.
- Harmful bacteria busting: Elderberry has been found to slow the growth of dangerous bacteria like Helicobacter pylori and improve symptoms associated with bronchitis and sinusitis.
- Fights harmful bacteria: Elderberry has been found to inhibit the growth of bacteria like Helicobacter pylori and may improve symptoms of sinusitis and bronchitis
- Supports the immune system: Research in rats has found that elderberry polyphenols increase immune defense by elevating the number of white blood cells.
- Protects against UV radiation: An elderberry skin product was found to have a sun protection factor of almost 10.
- May help with depression: One study found that mice fed 544 mg of elderberry extract per pound had elevated mood and performance markers.
This natural remedy comes with caution; however, as the raw berries, bark, and leaves of this plant are poisonous and can cause stomach issues. The toxic substances in the berries can be removed safely by cooking. However, do not use the branches, bark, or leaves in cooking or juicing.
If you are collecting flowers and berries, be sure that you correctly identify the plant as American or European elderberry. Other types of elderberry are more toxic. Remove any bark and leaves before use.
Elderberry should not be given to children and adolescents below 18 years old, pregnant women or lactating women.
-The UpWellness Team