Can Elderberry Fight Colds?

Can these anthocyanin-rich berries provide natural cold defense?


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Elderberries are the fruit of the elderberry shrub. A rich source of antioxidants known as anthocyanins, elderberries are cultivated for medicinal and food purposes and are used to make jam, jelly, and tea as well as medicinal syrup, gummies, lozenges, and capsules. The ripe berries can taste tart so are often sweetened (like cranberries).

The black elder (Sambucus nigra) is the species most often used in supplements, however other species that produce dark berries contain anthocyanins. The flowers of the European elder, known as elderflower, are used to make elderflower cordial or liqueur. 

The Benefits of Elderberry

Elderberry has long been used as an herbal remedy for colds, flu, and sinus infections. Preliminary studies suggest that elderberry extract may offer virus-fighting, immune-stimulating, and anti-inflammatory effects.

Colds and Flu

There hasn't been a great deal of human-based research on elderberry's effectiveness in preventing or treating colds or flu symptoms, but several studies indicate that the herb shows promise as a cold-fighter. In a 2016 study of 312 people traveling from Australia to an overseas destination (for a minimum of seven hours), scientists found that those who used elderberry extract from ten days before flying to five days after arriving at their destination had a shorter cold duration and less severe symptoms than those who took a placebo.

Preliminary studies suggest that elderberry extract may have anti-viral properties. In a laboratory study published in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, for instance, concentrated elderberry juice helped to defend against influenza A virus infection and stimulate the body's immune response.

In a study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine of 60 people suffering from flu-like symptoms, scientists found that those who used elderberry extract for five days (taking 15 mL in syrup form four times daily) saw their symptoms subside four days earlier than study members assigned to a placebo.

There's no evidence that the extract can prevent the flu. Since the influenza virus can lead to serious health problems (including pneumonia, a potentially life-threatening condition), it's critical to seek medical treatment if you're experiencing flu symptoms such as fever, extreme tiredness, and body aches.

Side Effects

Certain parts of the plant (such as the unripe berries, leaves, root, bark, and stems) have been found to be poisonous due to the presence of compounds such as cyanogenic glycosides.

Available in syrup and capsule form, elderberry can cause indigestion or allergic reactions in some individuals. The safety of long-term or excessive intake of elderberry supplements isn't known.

Pregnant women shouldn't take elderberry supplements due to the lack of information about safety, according to a review. Nursing women should also avoid elderberry.

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label.

Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. For instance, elderberry may lower blood sugar levels and have additive effects when taken with diabetes medication, or it may have a diuretic effect and further promote urination when taken with diuretics.

You can get additional tips on using supplements here.

The Takeaway

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend elderberry in the treatment of the flu. If you're considering using it, talk to your doctor to weigh the potential risks and benefits. Keep in mind that elderberry shouldn't be used as a substitute for standard care. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

For added defense against colds, strengthen your immune system by getting plenty of sleep, following a balanced diet high in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly.

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