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author: Dr. Kevin Curran

updated: 2-12-2017

What is black elderberry?

Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a small, shrubby tree that is native to most of Europe. There are many types of elderberry tree, however Sambucus nigra is the species used historically as a medicinal plant. For centuries, the fruits from this tree were eaten by early settlers in Europe and North America. They prepared a primitive black elderberry syrup and used it as a remedy for fevers associated with colds and the flu virus (Borchers, 2000).

In this article, we explore the way black elderberry benefits our immune system and overall health.

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.

black elderberry syrup for colds

photo: Agnieszka Kwiecień: CC-BY 3.0

An elderberry tree in Germany displaying a healthy cluster of black elderberries.

Black elderberry syrup benefits

Multiple health claims have been made for the elderberry plant. However, not all of these health claims are well supported by clinical trials. For example, some studies suggest consuming elderberry extract can help treat AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer’s (Chen, 2014; Konlee, 1998; Zambenedetti, 1998). The evidence with these claims is preliminary and we do not recommend relying on elderberry to assist with these serious ailments.

In contrast, multiple clinical trials have been published on the ability of elderberry to shorten the length of time we suffer from cold or flu symptoms.

In summary, it’s our opinion that using black elderberry as a means to boost your immune system is a reasonable course of action.

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…
  1. enhanced cytokine levels:   our immune system communicates with cytokines
  2. an antioxidant boost:   antioxidants protect our cells in various ways
  3. slowing down a virus:   data suggests elderberry can suppress viral activity

In summary…

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.

elderberry syrup uses

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:

  1. enhanced cytokine production
  2. delivering antioxidant flavonoids
  3. 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.

Factors to consider when taking elderberry

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, black elderberry has been used for hundreds of years especially in Germany, Austria and Britain (British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. 1983, Vogl, 2013). In general, long-term historical use strongly suggests a plant is safe to consume. However, please take the following items into consideration.

Importantly, you do not want to eat raw or unripe elderberries.

Raw or unripe black elderberry fruit contains a toxic chemical called cyanogenic glycoside. Ingesting raw elderberry can lead to hospitalization. Once the fruit is cooked, this toxic cyanide chemical is not a problem.

If you purchase or gather raw black elderberries, make sure to cook them before eating!

elderberry for colds

Dried black elderberries

As black elderberry is known to boost the human immune system, people with autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, ext.) should consult with their doctor before using this plant.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid black elderberry.

Remember to bookmark this page! Each year we update this article with new scientific reports on black elderberry benefits.

Gaia Herbs black elderberry syrup

Gaia is one of our favorite herb growers. We like this company because they grow their plants on an organic farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The Gaia farm is non-GMO and COG certified organic. Additionally, Gaia performs DNA bar-coding and phyto-chemical analyses for each bottle they sell. These tests ensure that you get an active version of the correct plant in your supplement.

Their elderberry syrup is produced from organic European black elderberries. There is no high fructose corn syrup, alcohol or artificial flavors in this syrup. It has been safely prepared for both adults and children.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, Gaia also puts their elderberry extract in these Liquid Phyto-Capsules. This saves your from the task of swallowing a cold syrup.

Black elderberry syrup by Sambucol

Sambucol is probably the most well-known manufacturer of a black elderberry product. The company goes by the same name as their product.

Sambucol formulated their system of creating elderberry syrup back in 1991. Dr. Madeline Mumcuoglu designed a method of extraction that Sambucol still uses to create this syrup. Her extraction method uses the whole berry in a process that captures the most possible benefits of the plant (antioxidants, flavonoids, ext.)

As a biologist, I like Sambucol because many of the clinical trials discussed above were performed with this exact Sambucol syrup. So, if you use Sambucol syrup, you know you’re using a version that has a published record of success.

The bottle is 7.8 ounces. A serving size is 2 teaspoons. This means you will get about 20 servings per bottle.

Frontier elderberries, whole organic

Frontier sells dried black elderberries in a 1 pound bag. This brand is very popular with folks who want to create their own elderberry syrup or tea. It’s important to remember that you don’t want to eat these right out of the bag. The berries will be much to hard to chew, but more importantly, as mentioned above, black elderberries need to be cooked to become safe for consumption.

Here is a common recipe for making your own black elderberry syrup from these berries.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup dried black elderberries
3 cups of water
1 cup of raw honey
1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
ginger to taste (fresh or powdered)

Directions:

Place berries, water & spices in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat & simmer for 30 minutes. Smash berries to release remaining elderberry juice & strain the mixture. Allow to cool & stir in honey. Syrup will last 2 – 3 months stored in the refrigerator.

People like to drink a bit of this syrup before they go to sleep or else in the morning.

Enjoy!

Black elderberry gummies by Nature’s Way

Nature’s Way is another supplement brand that we respect. This company was founded in 1968 by Tom Murdock while Tom was searching for a way to improve his wife’s health. A year later, Tom had 8 herbal remedies on the market. Now 40 years later, Nature’s Way is one of the largest suppliers of dietary supplements.

We are fond of Nature’s Way because they were the first major U.S. dietary supplement company to be certified as an organic processor. They’ve also been awarded multiple accolades for high quality manufacturing and product testing.

These gummies are a simple way to get your elderberry boost. They are very lightly sweetened with cane sugar. The main ingredients are vitamin C, zinc and black elderberry extract.

Shroom Tech Immune Support capsules from Onnit

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.

Thanks for reading our article. I hope you learned a lot about this interesting tree. Please check out our other articles on various medicinal plants.

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Citations

Abuja, Peter M., Michael Murkovic, and Werner Pfannhauser. “Antioxidant and prooxidant activities of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) extract in low-density lipoprotein oxidation.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 46.10 (1998): 4091-4096.

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.

Borchers, Andrea T., et al. “Inflammation and Native American medicine: the role of botanicals.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 72.2 (2000): 339-347.

British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. 1983. British Herbal Medicine Association. West Yorks, p. 186.

Chen, Christie, et al. “Sambucus nigra extracts inhibit infectious bronchitis virus at an early point during replication.” BMC veterinary research 10.1 (2014): 24.

Haas, Helmut, et al. “Dietary lectins can induce in vitro release of IL‐4 and IL‐13 from human basophils.” European journal of immunology 29.3 (1999): 918-927.

Konlee, M. “A new triple combination therapy.” Positive health news 17 (1998): 12.

Mascolo, Nicolo, et al. “Biological screening of Italian medicinal plants for anti‐inflammatory activity.” Phytotherapy research 1.1 (1987): 28-31.

Middleton, Elliott, and Chithan Kandaswami. “Effects of flavonoids on immune and inflammatory cell functions.” Biochemical pharmacology 43.6 (1992): 1167-1179.

Murkovic, M., U. Adam, and W. Pfannhauser. “Analysis of anthocyane glycosides in human serum.” Fresenius’ journal of analytical chemistry 366.4 (2000): 379-381.

Roschek, Bill, et al. “Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro.” Phytochemistry 70.10 (2009): 1255-1261.

Serkedjieva, Julia, et al. “Antiviral activity of the infusion (SHS‐174) from flowers of Sambucus nigra L., aerial parts of Hypericum perforatum L., and roots of Saponaria officinalis L. against influenza and herpes simplex viruses.” Phytotherapy Research 4.3 (1990): 97-100.

Tiralongo, Evelin, Shirley S. Wee, and Rodney A. Lea. “Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial.” Nutrients 8.4 (2016): 182.

Vogl, Sylvia, et al. “Ethnopharmacological in vitro studies on Austria’s folk medicine—An unexplored lore in vitro anti-inflammatory activities of 71 Austrian traditional herbal drugs.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 149.3 (2013): 750-771.

Yeşilada, Erdem, et al. “Inhibitory effects of Turkish folk remedies on inflammatory cytokines: interleukin-1α, interleukin-1β and tumor necrosis factor α.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 58.1 (1997): 59-73.

Youdim, Kuresh A., Antonio Martin, and James A. Joseph. “Incorporation of the elderberry benefits anthocyanins by endothelial cells increases protection against oxidative stress.” Free Radical Biology and Medicine 29.1 (2000): 51-60.

Zakay-Rones, Zichria, et al. “Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry juice extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 1.4 (1995): 361-369.

Zakay-Rones, Z., et al. “Does black elderberry syrup work for colds? Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.” Journal of International Medical Research 32.2 (2004): 132-140.

Zambenedetti, P., R. Giordano, and P. Zatta. “Histochemical Localization of Glycoconjugates on Microglial Cells in Alzheimer’s Disease Brain Samples by Using Abrus precatorius, Maackia amurensis, Momordica charantia, and Sambucus nigra Lectins.” Experimental neurology 153.1 (1998): 167-171.

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