8 benefits of elderberry

This dark purple berry may improve everything from the common cold to your blood sugar

It may seem like there’s an elderberry version of everything: These days, you see it in pies, teas, juice, alcoholic beverages, and dietary supplements. Although it may seem trendy now, people have been using elderberries as food and medicine for thousands of years. 

Elderberry originates from Europe, Northern Africa, and Western and Central Asia. It comes from the family Adoxaceae and is also known as elder, black elder, European elderberry, or European black elderberry.

Ancient writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Pliny back in the fifth century BCE note the use of elderberry as medicine. In folk medicine, elderberry has been used to treat cold symptoms, such as fever, cough, nasal congestion, and mucous discharge. Today, people use elderberries for several health benefits because of their antibacterial, antiviral, anticancer, and antioxidant properties. Here, you’ll find some of these evidence-based health benefits of elderberries.

8 health benefits of elderberry

When you talk about a nutritional powerhouse, elderberries deserve a worthy mention. They are loaded with carbohydrates, whole protein (including 16 amino acids), dietary fiber, fat, organic acids, essential oils, minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper), vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B6, B9, and E—and these nutrients have various benefit.

In addition to these nutrients, elderberries mainly contain polyphenols, including flavonols and anthocyanins. Compared to other fruits, elderberry fruit has the most amount of anthocyanin—and it’s responsible for the berry’s dark black-purple color. Anthocyanin functions as an antioxidant, a compound produced naturally in the body but also present in foods. Antioxidants fight off free radicals that damage cell membranes, DNA, and other parts of the body’s cells. 

The high antioxidant content and other properties of elderberry provide numerous health benefits. Here are seven.

1. Treats respiratory infections

A 2021 systematic review published in the Journal of BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies suggests that elderberry may reduce the duration and severity of respiratory infections, including common colds and influenza (commonly called the flu)—and the associated symptoms like sore throat, cough, fatigue, fever, and congestion. 

“Elderberry is a good source of vitamin C, which is vital to immune function and helps reduce the severity of cold and flu before it starts,” says Sarah Mathis, MD, a functional medicine coach and CEO of Sarah Mathis Wellness. “It can shorten cold and flu by up to four days.”

In a 2016 clinical trial on 312 air travelers, the researchers found that elderberry supplementation reduced cold duration. During the study, 158 participants received elderberry capsules, and 154 received placebo from 10 days before travel through four to five days after arrival at their destination. Following the end of the trial, participants taking elderberry had fewer cold symptoms and recovered two days faster than participants on a placebo.

Its effect on respiratory infections, such as the flu or common cold, is due to the polyphenol content, according to a 2015 review published in the Journal of Functional Foods. Elderberry is rich in polyphenols with antioxidant properties. What’s more, elderberries have a compound similar to a neuraminidase inhibitor. Dr. Mathis explains: “This is a substance that gets inside the flu virus to prevent it from replicating in your body. It works like antiviral medication.” However, you should only take this supplement as an antiviral when prescribed by your healthcare provider.

2. Promotes heart health

Elderberries may be beneficial for the heart, as they have been associated with positive effects on blood pressure; the anthocyanin content increases the release of nitric oxide—which helps widen the blood vessels and improves blood flow, leading to a decrease in blood pressure. 

Elderberry may also help reduce the amount of uric acid in the blood—increased uric acid is linked to high blood pressure. “Cyanidin-3-glucoside is a type of anthocyanin present in elderberry which has been well researched for its role in vascular function, and preventing cardiovascular diseases,” says Jenna Volpe, RDN, a functional registered dietitian-nutritionist, founder of Whole-istic Living in Austin, Texas.

“Elderberries may also cause a reduction in LDL (bad cholesterol),” Dr. Mathis says. Indeed, the 2015 review reports that hypertensive rats fed with food containing polyphenols from elderberries showed decreased total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. However, the research on humans remains inconclusive and requires more evidence.

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3. Reduces inflammation

Inflammation occurs as a response to an infection or injury. As a result of an infection or injury, the body produces inflammatory cytokines—molecules that activate the inflammatory response. Symptoms of inflammation may include redness, swelling, and pain. 

According to the 2021 systematic review, elderberry may cause a significant reduction in inflammatory cytokines. “Elderberry has anti-inflammatory properties since it contains antioxidants that reduce free radicals in the body,” Dr. Mathis says. Free radicals can cause cell and tissue damage if left unchecked.

Still, future long-term trials are needed to evaluate the effects of elderberry in people with severe inflammatory problems.

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4. Has anticancer properties

Elderberry may provide some health benefits in the fight against cancer. Researchers evaluated extracts from European (Sambucus nigra) and American (Sambucus canadensis) elderberries for their anticancer effects, and they showed some chemical properties that may prevent disease progression, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food. “They enhance an enzyme called quinone reductase,” says Benjamin Gibson, Pharm.D., a pharmacist, nutritionist, and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It protects cells from toxic and reactive chemicals that cause cancer and prevents the creation of new blood vessels, which cancer cells use to spread to other parts of the body.”

In addition, the extracts showed inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2, an enzyme that causes continuous growth of cancer cells and resistance to cancer therapy. What’s more, another study suggests that certain molecules in elderberry, including rutin, agglutins, and anthocyanins, can promote healthy ovarian cells and limit the progression of ovarian cancer cells. Elderberry agglutinin is believed to block the action of a protein (vascular endothelial growth factor) that encourages tumor growth. Also, rutin, the largest polyphenol concentration in elderberries, may help fight against cancer of the breast and blood tissues.

5. Prevents skin aging

You need collagen to keep your skin hydrated, healthy, and firm. Elderberries may benefit the skin by protecting it from aging and inflammation. In fact, the anti-inflammatory properties of elderberry make it suitable for improving skin aging caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, according to 2019 research published in Cytotechnology

The researchers examined if elderberry extract had any recovery effect on human skin after exposure to ultraviolet radiation. They found that elderberry extract removed free radicals and weakened reactive oxygen species, by-products of normal cell functions that can cause cellular damage in large amounts. Elderberry also helped block collagen breakdown and increase production of procollagen type I. Procollagen type I is a factor in collagen formation, and its production decreases in sun-damaged skin. 

6. Aids reproductive health

Another elderberry benefit is on reproductive hormones. One study found that high doses of elderflower and elderberry extracts increased the production of estradiol (17-beta estradiol), a hormone that regulates the female reproductive tract and the development of secondary sexual characteristics. 

And, at low doses, the extracts increased progesterone production. Progesterone is a hormone that aids menstruation, prevents miscarriage in early pregnancy, and supports the fetus as it grows. Simply put, the research suggests that extracts of elderberry and elderflower may increase the secretion of certain hormones from the ovary.

RELATED: Impact of hormones and mental health for women

7. Controls blood sugar levels

Elderberry is also considered an antidiabetic plant that may have positive effects on glucose or blood sugar levels. A 2015 review in the Journal of Functional Foods suggests that elderberry may have positive health benefits for diabetes because it may increase glucose uptake by the muscles and boost insulin secretion—insulin is the hormone that controls blood glucose levels. 

One study suggests that elderberry extracts may help lower insulin resistance, which occurs when the tissues stop responding to insulin.

Elderberry supplementation has also been shown to reduce glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c) in animal studies. Hemoglobin is the main component in your red blood cells that transports oxygen. A high HbA1c level indicates that blood sugar levels are too high as blood sugars attach themselves to hemoglobin in the red blood cells.

8. Works as a laxative 

Elderberries may be used as an herbal remedy for constipation. That’s because of its laxative effects. There is some evidence that anthocyanins in elderberry may have positive effects on the gut microbiome, which may be beneficial for certain digestive disorders, such as IBS. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.

Elderberry side effects

Parts of elderberry contain cyanogenic glycosides, such as sambunigrin and prunasin. These compounds can be poisonous and potentially life-threatening because they release cyanide. They are mostly found in unripe and raw elderberry fruits, and they can be neutralized with heat. Always cook elderberries before consumption, and avoid consuming the leaves, bark, and roots. Side effects associated with ingesting raw elderberries include diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea.

Other toxic components include lectin and Sam n1, which can cause allergies. However, boiling the berries for five to 10 minutes may help reduce the risk of allergic reactions.

According to the American Botanical Council, no confirmed drug interactions are linked to elderberries. Because of its diuretic and laxative effects, elderberry may increase the effects of certain diuretic and laxative medications. You should always consult with your healthcare provider if you’re on any medications before you start taking elderberry. 

Bottom line: Is elderberry healthy?

Elderberries are generally healthy and safe when consumed in moderation. They are rich sources of nutrients and antioxidants that can benefit your body. However, there is a need for more comprehensive human clinical trials to confirm their efficacy because most of the published studies were conducted within laboratory settings. In addition, eating raw elderberries or consuming the roots, leaves, or stems may be harmful. 

Following the guidelines of the American Botanical Council, elderberry can be taken using these dosages for common cold or flu symptoms and feverish conditions:

  • Elderberry syrup (containing 3.8 g of standardized liquid extract in 10 mL per syrup): two teaspoons daily for adults
  • Elderberry lozenges (containing 130 mg of standardized dry extract and 100 mg of vitamin C): one lozenge two times daily for adults
  • Elderberry juice: one glass of elderberry juice two times daily
  • Elderberry tea (made from 10 g of dried berries): one cup of elderberry tea several times a day

Always consult your healthcare provider before taking any form of elderberry, and take it as directed. Pregnant and lactating women are advised to avoid elderberry because of the lack of sufficient evidence of its toxicity during pregnancy or breastfeeding.


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