What Is Elderberry?

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

Elderberry is a dark purple berry that grows on the European or black elder tree, also known as the Sambucus nigra plant. It is a rich source of antioxidants known as anthocyanins and is often used to support the immune system.

The ripe berry is tart and typically sweetened, similar to cranberries. One cup of elderberries provides 106 calories, 27 grams (g) of carbohydrates, 10 grams of fiber, 52 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C, 2.3 milligrams of iron, and 406 milligrams of potassium.

Elderberry is not the same as American Elder, Elderflower, or Dwarf Elder, and these will not provide the same intended benefit as elderberry.

Elderberry is often touted for use against viral infections such as the common cold or the flu. It is marketed for several other conditions as well, but research is lacking. This article will review the potential uses of elderberry, how to safely use it, and possible concerns with using elderberry.

Dietary supplements are not regulated like drugs in the United States, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve them for safety and effectiveness before products are marketed. When possible, choose a supplement tested by a trusted third party, such as USP, ConsumberLabs, or NSF.

However, even if supplements are third-party tested, that doesn't mean they are necessarily safe for all or effective in general. Therefore, it is important to talk to you healthcare provider about any supplements you plan to take and check in about potential interactions with other supplements or medications.

Supplement Facts

Active ingredient(s): Multiple anthocyanins and polyphenols

Alternate name(s): Black elder, European elder, elder flower, sambucus

Suggested dose: No standard dose. However, 2 to 4 tablespoons daily given once or in 4 divided doses daily, depending on age, is the most common dosage used in research

Safety considerations: Avoid if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have an autoimmune disease, are taking immune suppressants, and in children under 5 years of age

Uses of Elderberry

Supplement use should be individualized and vetted by a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, pharmacist, or healthcare provider. No supplement is intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease.

Elderberry has been shown to reduce symptoms of the flu. Other proposed uses of elderberry have not supported by research.

Reduce Symptoms of Common Colds or Flu

Elderberry juice syrup has been used for centuries as a home remedy for viral illnesses like the common cold and flu. Some researchers have suggested that the syrup shortens the duration of some illnesses and makes them less severe; however, the study findings have varied.

Here are some of the findings from elderberry research:

  • A 2020 study did not find black elderberry to improve symptoms or reduce the amount of time of illness. Some participants also took Tamiflu (oseltamivir), a common antiviral treatment. However, people who did not take Tamiflu but took black elderberry had a longer illness duration. Adults were given 3 teaspoons four times daily, and children were given 3 teaspoons twice daily.
  • In a 2019 study on elderberry for cold and flu, elderberry appeared to reduce the duration of upper airway symptoms caused by the flu when taken at the onset of symptoms.
  • 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 cold illnesses. However, although it appeared to lower the duration and severity of the illness, it did not prevent infection. The elderberry group and placebo group had a similar infection rate.
  • A 2004 study found symptom improvement four days sooner in those who were given 3 teaspoons of black elderberry four times daily.
  • A recent systematic review found that elderberry may be a safe option for reducing the severity and duration of respiratory infections like the common cold and flu. However, the researchers noted that further research is still needed.

When evaluating the limited research available to date, it is important to keep in mind that:

  • Most of the trials done have been funded by the company that makes the supplement, possibly leading to bias in the results.
  • There is no defined dose of elderberry, so the amounts given differ between studies.
  • The most tested product in research (Sambucol) is now sold in different formulations that are not consistent with the original form that was studied.

Elderberry may reduce the symptoms associated with the common cold or the flu if taken early but there is no evidence to suggest that elderberry can prevent infection. Further research is needed.

elderberry

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Elderberry is also promoted for treating high cholesterol, aiding in pain relief, having anti-inflammatory properties, and more. However, there is not enough evidence to support these claims. Additionally, dietary supplements should not be used to treat a condition or disease.

What Are the Side Effects of Elderberry?

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

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomachache
  • Abdominal cramping

Elderberries should always be cooked and processed before they’re consumed. Other parts of the plant should be avoided as they contain a naturally occurring chemical compound called cyanogenic glycoside, which releases the poison hydrogen cyanide. These include the:

  • Leaves
  • Roots
  • Bark
  • Stems

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

Precautions

Elderberry use is considered safe for up to 12 weeks. However, some groups of people should avoid elderberry. This includes;

  • People who are pregnant or breastfeeding. There are no data evaluating elderberry safety in this group.
  • There are also no safety data on the use of elderberry in children under 5 years of age.
  • People with certain autoimmune diseases should avoid elderberry. Elderberry can theoretically exacerbate symptoms of an autoimmune disease, as it may stimulate more activity in the immune system. Consult with your healthcare provider before taking elderberry.

Dosage: How Much Elderberry Should I Take?

There is no standard recommendation for dosing elderberry.

In clinical trials, adults have taken 3 teaspoons of elderberry extract four times daily for five days. Note that 1 tablespoon is equal to 3 teaspoons. This dosage applies to syrups with elderberry. Since there is no standard dosage, consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist and read the dosage directions on the product label before taking it.

There are no standard recommended amounts for elderberry in gummies, tablets, or teas.

What Happens If I Take Too Much Elderberry?

Elderberry extract appears to be safe when taken in small doses. Taking amounts greater than recommended could be more likely to result in undesirable side effects.

Elderberries should always be cooked and processed before they’re consumed. Unripened, raw elderberries can release toxins into your body. Even ripe berries can contain trace amounts, so you must cook elderberries before consumption.

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

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

Interactions

Elderberry may reduce the effectiveness of immune suppressants, which are common medications for people who have undergone organ transplant procedures. Immune suppressants are also used for other conditions, and common ones include:

How To Store Elderberry

Keep elderberry in a cool, dry place. Supplements should always be stored out of reach of children and pets to prevent accidental consumption. Keep your supplements stored according to the instructions on the product label.

Fresh elderberries may last longer when refrigerated.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is elderberry most commonly used for?

    Elderberry is most commonly used orally as a syrup. Research suggests elderberry juice syrup may help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms associated with 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 cautiously. That said, there is no benefit to taking elderberry every day, as it does not prevent illness.

  • Is elderberry recommended to prevent COVID?

    There is no data on the use of elderberry for COVID, either to prevent it or to manage symptoms. Avoid any elderberry products with unsubstantiated claims of effectiveness for COVID-19.

Sources of Elderberry & What To Look For

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

In addition to the various forms, elderberry is available as a single supplement or in combination with other nutrients. For example, several forms are marketed for immune support, and they also contain vitamin C, zinc, vitamin A, or vitamin E.

This is especially important with elderberry products. One study evaluating elderberry products on the market found that many did not contain elderberry. Instead, they contained elderflower or were adulterated with other ingredients, such as black rice extract or purple carrot extract.

Dietary supplements are not regulated like conventional food products or drugs in the United States. Third-party testing would double-check that the product's contents match what's on the label and indicate a more trustworthy product.

In 2021, the USP held a forum to discuss the need for standards in developing elderberry products. Once standards are available, supplement companies can be held accountable for providing high-quality products.

As with all supplements, it is important to look for products that have been third-party tested. Look for supplements with a USP, NSF, or ConsumerLab label indicating they can be trusted to contain the listed ingredients.

Food Sources of Eldeberry

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

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 marketed mostly for immune support. Some research suggests it reduces the severity and duration of symptoms associated with the flu or common cold. However, it does not prevent infections or illnesses.

There is limited data on the uses of elderberry other than viral infection symptom management.

Unripe or unprocessed berries, as well as other parts of the plant, should not be consumed as they can be poisonous. However, elderberry extract in supplement form is generally safe to take in small doses.

If you are considering using elderberry, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about whether it is an appropriate supplement for you. Since there is no recommended dosage, follow the instructions on the product label or ask your provider how much you should use.

16 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 Jennifer Lefton, MS, RD/N, CNSC, FAND
Jennifer Lefton, MS, RD/N-AP, CNSC, FAND is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and writer with over 20 years of experience in clinical nutrition. Her experience ranges from counseling cardiac rehabilitation clients to managing the nutrition needs of complex surgical patients.

Originally written by Cathy Wong
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.

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