Elderberry: Is It Worth Trying?

Why You May Want to Think Twice Before Buying

Elderberry

Getty Images / Creativ Studio Heinemann

Are you suffering from a cold or just looking to boost your overall immunity? You may have had a friend or family member recommend you take elderberry. Also known as Sambucus or Sambucus nigra, this flowering plant is harvested and packaged into supplements that are thought to boost the immune system, especially against upper respiratory illnesses.

Although elderberry syrup and gummies are a staple in many home medicine cabinets throughout the winter, the evidence for their effectiveness is surprisingly limited. Here’s why you may want to think twice before buying.

What Is Elderberry?

Elderberries grow on flowering plants found primarily in the northern hemisphere. Though the berries can be white, the most common type is a dark, purplish variety that gets its color from anthocyanidin compounds (the same substances that color other foods like blackberries and red cabbage).

These berries have been used in both food and traditional medicines for centuries. In food preparations, they are always cooked to eliminate toxic substances found in the fresh berries. As a natural medicinal treatment, they are thought to shorten the duration of respiratory illnesses, act as a diuretic, and decrease swelling and inflammation.

What Does the Research Say?

When you’re under the weather with a stuffy nose or sore throat, it’s only natural to want to try anything you can to find relief. Anecdotally, many people swear by elderberry’s ability to make them feel better. But in terms of scientific evidence, there is not enough research to support supplementing with elderberry for purposes beyond its potential benefit against upper respiratory infections and flu.

Elderberry has been used in traditional medicine as a cold and flu remedy for centuries. More recently, it’s been taken out of the wild and into the lab. In the last couple of decades, scientific investigation has begun to examine its healing potential for respiratory illnesses.

May Provide Relief from Cold and Flu

Elderberry is most often touted as a natural remedy for cold and flu. Some research has shown promise that it may reduce the duration and symptoms of the common cold. A 2016 study, for example, examined the effects of elderberry on people who came down with a cold after air travel. Those who took elderberry supplements for 10 days prior to travel through five days after travel experienced a two-day reduction in cold symptoms and fewer symptoms overall. However, this study was quite limited in scope and was sponsored by a company that produces elderberry supplements.

Similarly, a 2019 meta-analysis on a total of 180 subjects concluded that elderberry supplementation substantially reduced upper respiratory symptoms.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, studies like these are enough to state that elderberry “may relieve symptoms of flu or other upper respiratory tract infections”–with the qualification that there’s not enough information to show whether elderberry is helpful for any other health purposes.

May Provide Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Research has also examined elderberry's potential to reduce inflammation. Like most berries, elderberries are rich in antioxidants. Specifically, these fruits contain the flavonoids anthocyanin, rutin, and quercetin, as well as phenolic acids gallic acid and gentisic acid.

Antioxidants work to reduce inflammation throughout the body—so it's not surprising that some studies have linked elderberry to lower levels of inflammation in animals. That said, more research is needed to determine how an elderberry supplement could reduce inflammation in humans.

May Be Cardioprotective

The anthocyanin compounds that give elderberries their dark purplish color don't just make them pretty to look at. They may also provide protection for your heart.

A 2016 systematic review of studies conducted on both humans and animals concluded that, because of anthocyanins' potential anti-inflammatory effects, they could be part of a prevention strategy against cardiovascular disease. Still, it's important to note that this study did not examine elderberries specifically.

What Are the Potential Dangers of Taking Elderberry?

If you follow package directions for the dosage of elderberry supplements, it’s unlikely you’ll experience an adverse reaction—though an allergy or sensitivity to their ingredients is always possible.

However, it's important to note that supplements are not regulated, so you can't always trust that the product you are consuming is safe or effective. It’s also worth noting that not much is known about the safety of elderberry during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

As for consuming the berries themselves, you’ll want to be careful. Any time you eat wild berries, it’s critical to be absolutely certain you know what they are. Even if you’re able to correctly identify elderberries, eating them straight off the bush isn’t a good idea. According to Alyssa Pike, RD, of the International Food Information Council, “raw unripe elderberries contain toxic substances (e.g., sambunigrin) that can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, Large quantities of the toxin may cause serious illness." 

Fortunately, the cooked elderberries you’ll find in pies, jams, and other foods shouldn’t be a problem. “Cooking elderberries eliminates this toxin,” Pike says.

Elderberry Supplements vs. Food

You may wonder if it matters whether you consume elderberry as a dietary supplement or as a food. According to Pike, the small amounts of elderberry you’re likely to consume in common dishes, such as elderberry pie or jam, probably won’t have much medicinal impact. “Elderberry syrup does not have strong evidence to back up claims related to immune health, so it’s very unlikely that amounts found in a mocktail, jam, or other food or drink will have any effect on your immune system.”  

How To Boost Your Immunity Naturally

Elderberry supplements may not be the key to shortening the duration of respiratory illness, but you can always take control of your health in other ways. An investment in daily lifestyle practices will likely boost your immune system more than a supplement ever could.

Consume a balanced diet. A varied diet full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants promotes a strong immune system. Specifically, nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamins A, C, D, and E have all been linked to better growth and function of immune cells. Try focusing on nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

Watch your intake of sugar, salt, and saturated fat. Avoiding highly processed and sugary foods and beverages is another smart move any time—but especially when you’re trying not to get sick. Research shows that standard choices in the Western diet (like foods high in refined sugar, salt, and saturated fat) can increase inflammation, thus weakening the immune system.

Prioritize sleep and exercise. Getting enough sleep and working in plenty of exercise can both contribute to a robust immune system.

Wash your hands. Especially during cold and flu season, wash your hands often and keep your distance from people you know are sick.

A Word From Verywell

At Verywell Fit, we aim to provide the facts behind the fads, especially when it comes to products that are popular but may not be entirely rooted in science. When it comes to supplements, including items like elderberry, be a cautious consumer.

While there are some purported health benefits of elderberry supplements, the science is limited. Instead of reaching for a product that may not provide everything the label claims, we suggest looking to adequate fiber and hydration, balanced nutrition, good sleep hygiene, daily movement, and other positive lifestyle factors to ensure you feel your best.

If you do choose to supplement your diet with elderberry, speak with a healthcare professional and registered dietitian nutritionist to decide which product and dosage is best for you.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit 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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