The Health Benefits of Elderberry

Touted for several uses, cold/flu treatment and prevention have the most support

Elderberry is dark purple fruit that is a rich source of antioxidants known as anthocyanins. In addition to the fruit itself, you can get elderberry through supplemental gummies, lozenges, syrups, teas, and more.

Many say they have had success using elderberry for the prevention and treatment of the common cold and the flu, as well as pain relief. There’s at least some scientific support for these uses.

Traditional uses for elderberry—including for hay fever, sinus infections, toothache, sciatica, and burns—have even less supporting evidence. And elderberry’s use for disease prevention is, at this point, only hypothetical.

In this article, you’ll learn about the evidence behind elderberry’s benefits. You’ll also learn how to take it, the possible side effects, drug interactions, and other potential dangers you should be aware of before using elderberry medicinally.

Health Benefits of Elderberry

Many of elderberry’s health benefits are linked to anthocyanins. Some research suggests they may:

  • Clear your body of free radicals (unstable molecules that damage cells and may cause disease)
  • Have antiviral properties that prevent or reduce the severity of some common infections
  • Have anti-inflammatory benefits due to changing your body’s immune response

Colds and Flu

Elderberry juice syrup has been used for centuries as a home remedy for viral illnesses like the cold and flu. Some researchers have concluded that this syrup shortens the duration of some illnesses and makes them less severe.

elderberry

Verywell / JR Bee

Some preliminary evidence from small studies appears promising.

  • In a 2019 study on elderberry for cold and flu, it appeared to greatly reduce upper airway symptoms.
  • A 2012 study suggested elderberry could help prevent influenza by stimulating an immune response.
  • A 2016 study on airline passengers suggested using elderberry extract for 10 days before and five days after a flight led to milder symptoms and 50% fewer sick days from the cold.

In the air travel study, while it appeared to lower the duration and severity of the illness, it didn’t appear to prevent it. Both the elderberry group and placebo group had about the same infection rate.

Pain Relief

Anthocyanins are known to reduce inflammation. Those in elderberry do so by blocking nitric oxide production in your immune system.

Nitric oxide tells the immune system to cause inflammation, which is part of its response to illness or injury. Elderberry seems to slow down the inflammatory response, which may lower swelling and the pain it can cause.

Topical elderberry tinctures and salves have long been used in folk medicine to treat:

Few studies have investigated elderberry’s anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving benefits in humans. Evidence should be considered preliminary.

Disease Prevention

Some alternative healthcare providers say elderberry’s antioxidant effects can reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease.

While it’s true that antioxidant-rich diets may offer such benefits, no studies have been done that directly link elderberry consumption to better disease outcomes.

Nutritional Facts

One cup of elderberries provides:

  • 106 calories
  • 1 gram of protein
  • 27 grams of carbohydrate
  • 10 grams of fiber

When it comes to the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, a cup of elderberries contains:

  • 52 mg of vitamin C
  • 0.34 mg of vitamin B6
  • 2.3 mg of iron
  • 406 mg of potassium

The ripe berry is tart and typically sweetened (like cranberries).

Possible Side Effects of Elderberry

Ripe, cooked elderberry fruit is considered safe to eat in moderation. As with several other fruits, eating a lot can cause:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomachache
  • Abdominal cramping

Poisoning

Elderberries should always be cooked before they’re consumed. Certain parts of the plant contain a poison called known as cyanogenic glycoside (cyanide). These include the:

  • Leaves
  • Roots
  • Bark
  • Stems

Unripened, raw elderberries can also release cyanide into your body and make you sick. Even ripe berries contain trace amounts, so elderberries must be cooked before you eat them.

Symptoms of Elderberry Poisoning

Poisoning from elderberries is rarely life-threatening. But it may cause:

Get medical attention if you develop these symptoms after consuming elderberry.

Drug Interactions

Anthocyanins, such as those in elderberry products, may interact with drugs that suppress the immune system and make them work less efficiently. Examples of these drugs are:

Who Shouldn’t Take Elderberry

Elderberries may not be safe for some groups of people. No safety information is available about elderberry use:

  • In children
  • During pregnancy
  • While breastfeeding

Not enough safety information is available about the interaction of elderberry and medications, such as:

  • Immunosuppressive drugs, such as those used by people with autoimmune diseases and transplant recipients
  • Medications for diabetes
  • Diuretics

Forms of Elderberry

Elderberries have long been cultivated for food and to make natural medicines. Products are available in many forms, including:

  • Syrups
  • Teas
  • Capsules
  • Gummies
  • Tonics
  • Tinctures
  • Topical ointments

The European elder (black elderberry, Sambucus nigra) is the species most often used in supplements. Other elder species also produce anthocyanin-rich berries, as well.

How to Make Elderberry Syrup

To make your own elderberry syrup:

  • Combine 2 cups of dried elderberries with 4 cups of cold distilled water in a heavy saucepan.
  • Bring it to a boil, reduce heat, and cook uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes. Stir regularly.
  • Remove from heat and steep for 1 hour. Strain mixture into a large measuring cup covered with cheesecloth, reserving liquid and discarding the used berries.
  • Allow syrup to cool, then stir in 1 cup of honey. Pour mixture into a sterilized container.
  • Seal and store in the refrigerator for up to three months.

You can buy dried berries online and in health food stores.

Dosage for Cold and Flu

Treatment should start no later than 48 hours after the first cold or flu symptoms appear.

Elderberry supplement dosages vary, so be sure to carefully follow the directions on the package so you don’t take too much.

Keep in mind that elderberry should never be used as a substitute for conventional medical care. Self-treating a condition and delaying standard medical treatment may have serious consequences.

What to Look For

Elderberry-based medications are classified as dietary supplements by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under this classification, they’re not meant to be sold or marketed as a treatment for any medical condition.

Because supplements aren’t required to undergo rigorous research or testing, they can vary significantly in quality. To ensure quality and safety, only buy supplements that are certified by an independent certifying body, such as:

  • U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP)
  • NSF International
  • ConsumerLab

This certification doesn’t mean the product is effective, only that it’s not contaminated and actually contains what the label says it does.

Buying Fresh Elderberries

If you want fresh berries, be sure you buy them from a reputable source. It’s never safe to eat unknown berries in nature, as they may have dangerous effects. If you have eaten an unknown berry and develop concerning symptoms, get immediate medical attention.

Summary

Elderberry is a fruit that’s long been used in traditional medicine and appears to have some medicinal benefits. These include treating the cold and flu, relieving pain, and possibly helping prevent disease due to their antioxidant activities.

You can take elderberry supplements in several forms, including gummies, syrups, teas, and capsules. Don’t eat unripened berries in any form, as they can make you sick. Ripe berries should always be cooked before consumption.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is elderberry most commonly used for?

    Elderberry is most commonly used as a cough syrup. Research suggests elderberry juice syrup may help treat upper respiratory symptoms of colds and flu.

  • Is it safe to take elderberry every day?

    Commercially made elderberry supplements shouldn’t contain cyanide, so they’re considered safe for daily use. Only take the amount recommended on the label. Since homemade/artisan syrups might contain small amounts of cyanide, use them with caution. 

  • How should I store fresh elderberries?

    Elderberries will keep longer if they’re stored in the refrigerator.

19 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.