Recently, there’s been renewed interest in black elderberry as a therapy for colds and flu infections. Laboratory and clinical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of black elderberry to boost our immune system and minimize the effects of getting sick.
photo: Agnieszka Kwiecień: CC-BY 3.0
An elderberry tree in Germany displaying a healthy cluster of black elderberries.
In this article, we will…
- Review published clinical trials that test black elderberry against flu symptoms.
- Explain how this plant boosts our immune system. We examine the top 3 health benefits associated with black elderberry. These benefits are…
- enhanced cytokine levels: our immune system communicates with cytokines
- an antioxidant boost: antioxidants protect our cells in various ways
- slowing down a virus: data suggests elderberry can suppress viral activity
- Discuss the factors involved when choosing a black elderberry brand.
If you purchase whole elderberry fruit, you can then prepare your own syrup. However, make sure to process the fruits properly. Raw elderberry fruit contains a toxic, cyanide chemical that must be destroyed by heat.
Most people choose a pre-prepared syrup. However, if you want to avoid drinking syrup, you also have the option of taking a capsule or a gummy bear! At the end of this article, I go over these options in more detail.
Dried black elderberries
Clinical testing of black elderberry syrup for colds or flu infections.
Throughout this article, we review multiple clinical trials performed on human patients to test the effectiveness of black elderberry syrup for colds and the flu. In general, these reports conclude that black elderberry syrup can shorten the length of sickness and/or reduce the symptoms associated with these infections.
One 2016 study by Tiralongo et al. just caught our attention. We all know traveling by plane is stressful and can lead to us catching a cold or flu. A group of Australian plant scientists tested whether taking an elderberry supplement before international air travel could help keep people healthy. Their results are intriguing.
Their data showed that travelers who took elderberry capsules experienced a significant reduction in the intensity of cold symptoms. They also found that travelers who used elderberry had cold symptoms for fewer days than those who took a placebo control.
How does elderberry boost our immune system?
The exact mechanism by which elderberry helps our body fight infections remains unclear. However, that said, there are multiple lines of evidence that suggest black elderberry can boost our immune system in 3 different ways.
Our immune system is a collection of biological structures and processes within our body. The job of our immune system is to detect and kill infectious agents. These infectious agents could be viruses, bacteria or parasitic worms. Our immune system must identify these foreign invaders and then mount a biological attack against them. If this happens effectively, then the infection is killed off and we don’t get sick.
It’s in our best interest to help our immune system stay strong. If our immune system is strong then our body will be prepared to fight off infections.
Published reports describe how elderberry can strengthen our immune system via:
- enhanced cytokine production
- delivering antioxidant flavonoids
- viral suppression
We will briefly review each of these immune system activities.
1.) Elderberry regulates cytokines in our immune system
Published work reveals elderberry can increase and regulate the production of cytokines in our immune system (Abuja, 1998; Middleton, 1992; Murkovic, 2000; Youdim, 2000).
Cytokines are small chemicals in our body that allow our immune system to work correctly. When our body is infected with a virus, cytokines communicate this infection to other parts of our immune system.
As stated earlier, Barak et al. reported elderberry treatment initiated a significant increase in the inflammatory cytokines (IL-1, IL-6, IL-8 and TNF-α).
Interestingly, elderberry caused the most dramatic spike in TNF-α (8 fold increase). TNF-α, a tumor necrosis factor, is a cytokine produced by activated macrophages in response to infection from microbes, such as bacteria. Macrophages are a critical cell in our immune system. Macrophages act like scavengers, scanning our body for dangerous debris or dangerous bacteria. It’s encouraging to see that elderberry boosts TNF-α levels, as it suggests this plant can enhance macrophage activity.
Additional publications have also reported that elderberry treatment regulates various cytokines and immune system cells (Haas, 1999; Mascolo, 1987; Yeşilada, 1997).
Jump down to read our factors to consider when looking for a quality black elderberry brand.
2.) Black elderberry is a source of antioxidants
The black elderberry plant contains many small molecules known as flavonoids. Flavonoids are a class of secondary metabolite chemical often found in plants. Leafy vegetables, dark skinned fruits, wine and chocolate are among the many plant based foods rich in flavonoids.
These flavonoids help fend off pathogens and allergens and also display high antioxidant activity. Antioxidants help prevent free radicals from damaging human cells.
Black elderberry extract contains different versions of antioxidant flavonoids (flavones, flavonones, isoflavones, anthocyanins). Multiple studies demonstrate the anthocyanins possess potent anti-oxidant capacity.
Youdim et. al demonstrated black elderberry anthocyanins provide significant protection against oxidative stress to the vascular endothelial cells (cells lining the inside of blood vessels.) In this case, the anthocyanins defended cells against degradation from three separate oxidizing molecules: hydrogen peroxide, AAPH and AA (Youdim, 2000).
Research into the health benefits of antioxidant flavonoids is ongoing.
3.) Black elderberry displays anti-virus activity
There are some interesting, yet very early stage experiments that suggest chemical compounds from black elderberry can block infection by directly inhibiting viral action. Laboratory and animal hemagglutination studies demonstrate that extract from Sambucus nigra can inhibit both the influenza virus A and B and the herpes simplex virus-143 virus (Roschek, 2009; Serkedjieva, 1990; Zakay-Rones, 1995).
The authors speculate the elderberry extract can somehow stain and coat the exterior of a virus, rendering the virus non-functional. However, it is important to note that these virus inhibition results have not been repeated in animal models, further work is necessary.
In my ongoing mission to keep my immune system strong, I’ve recently begun using these Shroom Tech Immune Support capsules, made by a company called Onnit.
Shroom Tech capsules do not contain any black elderberry extract, instead they rely on a blend of medicinal mushrooms, including potent extract from reishi, maitake, cordyceps and chaga mushrooms. These mushrooms are rich in a biologically active molecule called beta glucans. Beta glucans help form the walls around the individual cells in fungus species. Reports demonstrate that beta-glucans increase host immune defense by ramping up our innate immune system (macrophage activity, complement system and natural killer cell function).
To round out the immune strengthening profile, these capsules also contain turmeric, astralagus, lemon peel, oregano leaf and ginger.
Onnit is a relatively new fitness and supplement company that has earned a lot of love and respect in the past 5 years. They’re based in Austin, Texas and have focused their company around the cause of optimizing human performance.
Click to purchase Shroom Tech Immune Support capsules
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Barak, Vivian, Tal Halperin, and Inna Kalickman. “The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines.” Eur Cytokine Netw 12.2 (2001): 290-296.
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