Food as Medicine

What is Elderberry? Benefits and Dangers

Black elderberry, Sambucus nigra, is the dark purple fruit of black elder trees found in North America, Asia, Northern Africa and Europe.

It is one of the most commonly used medicinal plants to help treat colds and flus. Its high levels of polyphenols and flavonoids, such as quercetin, give elderberries its potent antiviral, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory qualities.

Nutrients found in Elderberry:

  • Antioxidants (anthocyanins, phenolic acids, flavonoids)
  • Fiber
  • Vitamin C

Possible Benefits

This berry can lessen or reduce the duration of cold and flu symptoms. There is no evidence that elderberries prevent cold and flu, but studies have demonstrated some people recovered faster and had less severe flu symptoms when elderberry extract was added to their medical treatment plan.

In laboratory studies, a particular elderberry extract, Sambucol, has been shown to increase the production of inflammatory cytokines (proteins that are released by the body to help fight infection) in human blood.

Its antioxidant effects help prevent damage in your lungs caused by a virus. It contains a unique protein that can stop virus cells from growing and replicating. If the virus can’t grow and spread, your body has a chance to recover at a faster rate.

Other possible benefits:

  • Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • May fight certain cancers
  • Improves glucose and insulin control

Dangers

Raw, unripe elderberries are toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Cooking elderberries and the other parts of the elder tree (leaves, stem, bark) gets rid of the toxin.

It is now commonly prepared and sold as elderberry extract. You can purchase it as a flavorful syrup, or in lozenges and gummies.

Due to the lack of research on humans, elderberry cannot be confidently recommended for any health benefits. There is encouraging evidence that it can help you recover from a cold or flu, but it is not safe to rely on elderberry for the prevention or treatment of any illness.

Always speak with your healthcare providers about any supplements you are interested in adding to your healthy diet.

Summary

Elderberry may be a low-cost, low-risk way to help fight a cold or flu. Elderberry extract can be found in syrups, lozenges or gummies. When added to a healthy diet, it can provide a good source of antioxidants, vitamin C and fiber.

Sources

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/elderberry

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28198157/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11399518/

Written by: Marguerite Drowica, Dietetic Intern, Hunter College

Reviewed by: Nazirber Maduro, RDN, CDN, CDCES

Nazirber Maduro, RDN, CDN, CDCES

Nazirber Maduro is a bilingual registered dietitian and nutritionist who believes that healthy and delicious food should be enjoyed at any stage in life. She helps people transform the way they eat and find joy in food through the practice of food and lifestyle medicine.

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