Immune Support

Is Elderberry the Best Natural Cold and Flu Remedy?

By Justin Fowler-Lindner

Feeling under the weather? Perhaps the elderberry plant may be able to help. Elderberry is one of the most widely-used natural cold and flu remedies. In fact, it may even shorten the duration of the common cold if you take it within the first 48 hours of feeling sick.

Additionally, some of the top health benefits of elderberry include:

  • Strengthens immunity
  • Fights the flu
  • Treats cold symptoms
  • Relieves sinus infections
  • Promotes heart health

Keep reading to learn more about when you should take elderberry, its side effects, and more.

What Is Elderberry?

Elderberries are the fruit of the Sambucus tree. The fruit ranges from deep-purple to red depending on the subspecies. It possesses potent immune-boosting properties thanks to a high concentration of antioxidants. 

Where does it come from?

Elderberry has a long history of use in folk medicine. Here’s how the different parts of the plant were traditionally used:

  • Bark: Processed and taken orally as a diuretic and laxative
  • Flowers and leaves: Used to reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling
  • Berries: Used to treat respiratory infections, constipation, headaches, back pain, and toothaches

Recent research is starting to back up many of the age-old health claims surrounding elderberry. Scientists believe that the flavonoids in the fruits of the plant possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiviral properties.

Different Types of Elderberry

The four most well-known sub-species of the plant include:

  • Black elderberry, or European elder (Sambucus nigra)
  • American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
  • Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)
  • Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

Although all types of these plants are rich in powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins, black elderberry has the highest concentrations and is the most potent.

In general, the darker the berry, the higher the anthocyanin content. Red elderberry, for example, is one of the least potent types.

How to Take Elderberry

Elderberry is packed with nutrients and antioxidants. The main active compounds include flavonoids (anthocyanins, quercetin, rutin), vitamin A, and vitamin C. These nutrients are known to reduce oxidative stress and balance the immune system. They also contain iron, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, copper, zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin B5, and folate.

These beneficial nutrients are what make elderberry a great natural remedy to treat cold and flu symptoms, as well as fight off a sinus infection. Other benefits it may have include heart health, bacterial infections, gum inflammation, high blood sugar, and cancer prevention. 

So how do you take elderberry?

Elderberry based supplements are available as syrups, lozenges, gummies, powder, capsules, and chewable tablets. Sambucol is the name of the clinically-formulated and standardized elderberry extract that’s used to make the majority of its supplements. It contains precisely 38 percent elderberry extract. You can also purchase frozen or dried berries and buy elderberry juice or tea.

5 Health Benefits of Elderberry

The compounds in elderberry have broad effects on the immune system that fight disease by reducing inflammation and preventing oxidation.

Here are five of the top health benefits that this plant may promote:

1. Strengthens Immunity

Elderberry acts as an immuno-modulator that balances immune system activity in a variety of ways. In other words, it can both activate a suppressed immune system or calm an overactive one.

In a 2002 laboratory study with elderberry syrup (Sambucol) and human cells, Sambucol activated immune cells without triggering excessive inflammation. Researchers concluded that, “Sambucol could therefore have immunostimulatory properties when administered to patients suffering from influenza, immuno-depressed cancer or AIDS patients who are receiving chemotherapy or other treatments.”

A separate 2015 animal study found that elderberry extracts can boost the production of white blood cells called T-helper cells and macrophages in diabetic rats.

2. Fights the Flu

Elderberry may help prevent the spread of the influenza virus that is responsible for the annual seasonal flu epidemics.

Here’s what the research has to say about elderberry and the flu:

  • In a 2004 human study, elderberry syrup effectively reduced the severity and duration of flu symptoms by several days. 
  • A 2009 laboratory study found that elderberry can be equally effective at fighting Influenza A as the pharmaceuticals Tamiflu and Amantadine.
  • In a 2009 pilot study, 64 patients treated with elderberry lozenges four times a day for two days experienced significant improvements in muscle pain, congestion, headache, and fever.

3. Shortens the Duration of the Common Cold

People are generally more susceptible to catching a cold when they’re under stress. Researchers think that elderberry may help prevent and reduce cold symptoms during times of physical and mental stress.

In a 2016 clinical trial published in the journal Nature, 312 airplane travelers were treated with either elderberry extract or a placebo before, during, and after travel. According to the study’s authors, elderberry can reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms among air travelers.

4. Treats Sinus Infection

Several studies indicate that an herbal formula containing elderberry can treat bacterial sinus infections by fighting inflammation, improving runny nose, and relieving headaches.

For example, a 2006 meta-analysis of four clinical trials found that a combination of elderberry, gentian root, cowslip flowers, sorrel, and vervain wort, combined with standard antibacterial therapy, can significantly reduce the acute symptoms of sinusitis.

5. May Promote Cardiovascular Health

Elderberry may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by promoting weight loss, lowering high cholesterol, and reducing high blood pressure. It can also fight inflammation and reduce oxidative stress, both of which can damage blood vessels.

A 2008 clinical trial published in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that a combination of elderberry extract and asparagus can reduce body weight and lower blood pressure in 80 adult participants.

Potential Side Effects and Risk Factors 

Most of the research on elderberry is limited to animal and cell studies, and the few clinical trials that have been conducted are far from conclusive. Be careful when consuming unripe or uncooked berries due to the risk of toxicity from a compound called sambunigrin, which can lead to cyanide poisoning as the body digests it.

Fresh elderberries also contain inflammatory lectins which can cause digestive problems in sensitive individuals.

You should not take elderberry products while taking diuretics, laxatives, diabetes medications, or blood pressure-lowering drugs due to the risk of complications. However, for most people elderberry is a generally safe way to boost the immune system and fight upper respiratory infections.

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