Elderberry is not just for Cold and Flu it has Much More Medicinal Uses
What Is Elderberry Used for? A Detailed Guide to the Plant’s Benefits, Side Effects, and More
If you’ve slogged through a cold or flu recently, you’re probably familiar with elderberry. The popular virus fighter grows on a shrub (though you’ll also hear it called an elderberry tree) and is a member of the Adoxaceae family. ()Sambucus nigra, the most typically used species, is native to Europe and North America, but it and many related species are found in temperate regions worldwide. The plant's blossoms turn to fruits called, of course, elderberries.
These edible berries are most famous for their use as an antiviral agent in medicines, and they’re also used to make wine, jam, syrup, and even pie filling. (2) The plant's flowers can be eaten or steeped as tea, and elderflower liqueur has been made for centuries.
While elderberry has prehistoric roots, its reputation as a healer may originate with the “father of medicine,” Hippocrates, who called elderberry his “medicine chest” back in 400 BCE. (3) In the Middle Ages, elderberry was called a Holy Tree, believed to have the ability to preserve health and lengthen one’s life. (2) Even greater powers have been attributed to the plant: The leaves were used to guard against witches and spirits, and people would place elderberries on windowsills to repel vampires. (4)
In modern times, elderberries played a key role in healing before the advent of antibiotics. All the parts of the plant were believed to be medicinal, including its leaves and bark, and were used in treatment for pain, as an anti-inflammatory, for toothaches, fevers, and more. (4) The berries were also a prized food source of Native North American groups. (2)
Nowadays, elderberry — specificallySambucus nigra— is considered an alternative remedy for use against the common cold and flu, and it’s the berries that are primarily used and given as a liquid, gummy, or capsule supplement. (4) They’re rich in flavonoids like anthocyanins, powerful plant pigments that reduce inflammation and have antiviral properties.
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What Are the Potential Health Benefits of Elderberry?
Elderberry gained popularity in folk medicine as a treatment for virtually any ailment: as a pain reliever, for coughs, skin conditions, insect repellent, shortness of breath, swelling — the list goes on. But science has yet to provide definitive proof of its health-promoting powers. Here’s what we know.
During flu season you know you need to wash your hands constantly, but you may also try elderberry. Animal research has found that elderberry stimulates the immune system to effectively kick out invading viruses that cause illness. (5) Research in cell cultures shows that elderberry extract can inhibit influenza A and B viruses, as well asStreptococcusbacteria. (3) But you’re not an animal or a cell culture. Though folk wisdom says elderberry treats the flu, sinus infections, and bronchitis, clinical trials in people are still needed. (6)
When traveling by air, stock up on elderberry. It’s easy to see how sitting in an airplane can put you at risk for catching something. After all, you’re in an enclosed cabin with strangers who may not know the art of covering their cough or washing their hands.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 312 economy-class overseas fliers were instructed to take liquid elderberry extract or placebo capsules for 10 days before and 5 days after traveling. (7) While the placebo group did get more colds, the authors noted that the result wasn’t statistically significant. The bright spot is that people who took elderberry reduced their cold duration by two days and suffered less-serious symptoms. The researchers suggest it may be elderberry’s antioxidant properties, similar to vitamin C, that “stabilize” someone’s health while traveling. More research is warranted.
One review of research into other benefitsdidn't clearly show that elderberry helps in other reported ways, including decreasing gingivitis, lowering high cholesterol, and treating obesity. (7) The authors of that review pointed to one small study that linked elderberry juice to weight loss, reduced blood pressure, and improved well-being. (8) Nevertheless, they noted, more clinical trials are needed.
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What Are the Side Effects and Health Risks of Elderberry?
If you were to come across an elderberry plant, you’d be best served by cooking the berries. The bark, leaves, seeds, and unripe fruit may cause cyanide poisoning when ingested. (7) Side effects of uncooked berries include nausea or vomiting. Luckily, cooking does eliminate their toxicity. But watch the amount: When cooked berries “are consumed in amounts usually found in foods,” they’re likely safe, but don't go overboard. Finally, it’s only the blue and purple berries that are edible. The red berries that dot other elderberry plant species are toxic. Don’t eat them. (2)
If you're being treated for certain medical conditions you may need to stay away from elderberries. (7) Always talk to your doctor first, especially if you’re on any prescription medication, such as blood pressure medications (elderberries may lower blood pressure, compounding the effect of the drug), on chemotherapy (they may increase the risk of side effects), or if you have been diagnosed with diabetes (they may alter insulin secretion). These are just a few of the conditions that elderberry may interact with, so it’s critical that your doctor knows everything you’re taking, including natural supplements.
If you’re pregnant, you may consider turning to elderberry rather than conventional medications, but it’s not known yet if it’s safe. When researchers reviewed the literature on elderberry, they found that there weren’t enough clinical trials on the safety of elderberry in pregnancy. And while some trials have shown that elderberry is effective against the flu, that data is culled from a small number of people, and more research is needed. As it stands, researchers say, doctors should not tell their pregnant patients to take elderberry for upper respiratory infections. (9)
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Tips for Selecting and Storing an Elderberry Supplement or Jam
Most likely, you’ll take elderberry as a supplement. You’ll find these in gummies, liquids or juices, syrups, lozenges, dried, and in capsule form. You can also buy elderberry jelly, jam, and wine online and in some stores. The taste is sweet and tart and overall, enjoyable.
When you’re buying elderberry, you’ll frequently find supplements that include a mix of elderberry and the immune boosters zinc and vitamin C (Nature’s Way Sambucus is one example). Elderberry gummies are tasty, but they do have added sugar. Other supplements may include only elderberry as the active ingredient. Choose the formula that suits your needs the best, and read the ingredient label to know what active and inactive ingredients each contains. Like other vitamins, these should be stored in a cool, dry place. (Just remember: There’s no proof that elderberry supplements are safe and beneficial.)
More Foods Like Elderberry
Certain country stores and online outlets sell elderberry jelly and jam; use and store it as you would other jellies and jams. You can also buy elderberry concentrate that can be added to water. (Wyldewood Cellars is one online seller.)
You can find elderberry juice online — Biotta Naturals has one. Note that for elderberry juice to be tasty and not too tart, sugar is added to the mix. One cup has about 150 calories and 34 grams of sugar (much of this is natural from the fruit). It is a good source of potassium — 15 percent of your daily need in one serving.
Elderberry wine is another option to get your fix. You can find these at some wineries and their associated online stores, where the winemakers may feature wine made from only elderberries or blends with other berries. Elderberry wine is vibrantly fruity and sips like a port. If you’re really into getting your hands dirty, you could make elderberry wine at home, as there are several how-to YouTube videos available, like this one:
Other Plants Like Elderberry That May Offer Benefits for Your Health
There are several antiviral plants you can turn to when you’re looking to stay well. Echinacea is perhaps the best known, and it may be helpful when you’re sick. When taken after you come down with a cold, it may help cut the number of days you’re ill. (10)
In cooking, you can also incorporate a lot of ginger in your dishes, as the rhizome contain infection-fighting properties that help keep you well. (11).
And finally, there’s some evidence that people who took a garlic supplement daily for three months suffered fewer colds. (12) Those results are based on a single study; more trials are needed. But incorporating garlic into your cooking certainly won’t hurt.
Video: Elderberry & The Immune System | Ask the ND with Dr. Jeremy Wolf
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