You’ve probably heard about elderberry syrup’s reputation as a cold and flu-fighter, and if you’re interested in natural remedies, you’ll be thrilled to know that mounting scientific evidence supports elderberry’s traditional use for fighting viruses, as well as numerous other health benefits.
To take advantage of these benefits this season, read on to learn how elderberries can support immune function and how you can use them safely and effectively.
How elderberries fight viruses
Elderberry has a long history of use in fighting cold and flu, most often in the form of a syrup made by simmering the berries and sweetening with sugar or honey. Numerous scientific studies have sought to understand how elderberry works against common viruses.
Starting in the 1990s, small clinical trials began testing elderberry’s ability to combat flu. Studies in humans found that supplementing with elderberry significantly shortened the duration and severity of both colds and flu.
A 2004 study of influenza subjects found that symptoms improved an average of four days earlier in those receiving elderberry extract compared with those receiving a placebo.
A 2004 study of sixty subjects with influenza found that symptoms improved an average of four days earlier in patients receiving elderberry extract compared with those receiving a placebo. Five years later, another study of sixty-four patients with flu-like symptoms found that those receiving elderberry extract “showed significant improvement of influenza‐like symptoms within 24 hours of the onset of treatment.”
More recently, a 2019 metastudy reviewing clinical trials to date found that supplementing with elderberry “substantially reduce[d] upper respiratory symptoms.” It turns out that elderberry is especially effective against flu, but researchers also noted that “supplementation successfully reduces the symptoms regardless of underlying cause.”
Lab studies suggest that elderberry defends us from viruses in three different ways:
- Stimulating the immune system
- Interfering with viruses’ ability to penetrate cells
- Inhibiting viral replication
One in vitro experiment found the flavonoids derived from elderberry extract blocked the H1N1 flu virus as effectively as Tamiflu.
Additional benefits from elderberries
In addition to their impressive ability to fight viruses, elderberries have garnered attention for their high concentrations of compounds called anthocyanins, which studies suggest help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, a condition in which our bodies have an excess of unstable atoms called free radicals. Oxidative stress can damage our cells and DNA, increasing our risk of conditions like arthritis, neurological diseases, and cancer.
Researchers are investigating how consuming elderberries may help prevent cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders, protect brain health, and reduce the risk of developing cancer. A 2015 review of human studies of elderberry concluded that the compounds in elderberries “can greatly affect the course of disease processes by counteracting oxidative stress, exerting beneficial effects on blood pressure, glycaemia reduction, immune system stimulation, anti-tumour potential, increase in the activity of antioxidant enzymes in the blood plasma.”
If you’re lucky enough to have elderberry plants growing wild near you or in your garden, it’s helpful to know that the blossoms, called elderflowers, also have medicinal properties. They also taste fantastic in a wide variety of recipes.
Cautions, contraindications, interactions
As with any medicinal herb, there are some cautions to keep in mind before consuming elderberry.
- Elderberry’s ability to stimulate the immune system means it’s not recommended for people with auto-immune diseases or who take immunosuppressants.
- Elderberry is a diuretic and can affect blood glucose. Anyone taking diuretics or diabetes medication should speak with their doctor before consuming.
- It’s not recommended to take elderberry with respiratory medications or corticosteroids or if undergoing chemotherapy.
- Herbs may increase or decrease the absorption of some medications or increase or decrease their actions.
- There are no studies demonstrating the safety of elderberry for pregnant women or young children.
Always speak to a doctor if you have any underlying health conditions before using any herb for the first time. Even if you’re otherwise healthy, herbalists suggest starting with one quarter the recommended dose of a new herb to be sure you don’t have an adverse reaction. A small number of people are allergic to elderberry, and some people are more sensitive than others to elderberry compounds.
How to use elderberry
Herbalists recommend taking small doses of elderberry, often at the first signs of illness. Some say several times per day, while others suggest every hour. Unfortunately, taking elderberry syrup that often would mean consuming a great deal of sugar. Instead, consider making something called a decoction.
A decoction is made by simmering the berries—and additional herbs if desired—in water. If you’ve ever made homemade elderberry syrup, you’ve first made a decoction and then added honey.
A decoction can be diluted in water and consumed as a tea or taken by the spoonful as you would elderberry syrup. It will keep a few days in the refrigerator and can be frozen in an ice cube tray for future use.
I get asked often if there’s one elderberry recipe I make more than any other, and my answer is always a decoction. I love it diluted in water as a fruity tea, and it can be used in numerous other recipes, including elderberry syrup, smoothies, gummies, fruit leather, and more. You’ll find recipes for more delicious treats as well as tinctures, oxymels, ice creams, popsicles, and dozens of others in my new book, Everything Elderberry. Instructions for making elderberry decoction are located below.
Another low-sugar option is a tincture, elderberries steeped in alcohol (or glycerine if you’re making it for kids or wish to avoid alcohol). Elderberry vinegar is another option to consider.
Though there are no scientific studies proving its efficacy for prevention, many people take a daily dose of elderberry to avoid colds and flu altogether. Whether or not this method works, elderberry is such a rich source of antioxidants that a daily elderberry habit is likely beneficial to health in many ways.
However, one herbalist I spoke to while researching the book cautioned against overusing so-called immune boosters, suggesting that the immune system needs a little challenge from time to time to keep in shape, similar to our muscles.
Elderberry decoction recipe
Made from elderberries simmered in water, an elderberry decoction can be taken by the spoonful, diluted in hot water to make tea, or used as a base for numerous other recipes. You can add additional immune-supporting herbs, such as astragalus or ginger. Cinnamon and cloves can also add some warming spice and additional health-promoting compounds.
½ cup dried elderberries (or 1 cup fresh)
2 cups filtered water
1-2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and chopped (or ¼-½ teaspoon dried)
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon or a small cinnamon stick
Pinch ground cloves
- Simmer berries (and additional herbs, if using) in water, covered, over low heat for 30 minutes.
- Turn off heat and allow to steep for at least an hour.
- Strain into a jar and keep in the refrigerator for up to five days or in the freezer for up to three months.
Tip for making the most of your elderberries
Once strained, the berries can be simmered again to make a weaker brew that you can drink as a tea. After you’ve drained the first batch, cover with water and simmer again for 10-20 minutes. Though it’s likely less powerful for fighting off viruses, this liquid tastes good and is still a nice fruity herbal tea.
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Disclaimer: This article is meant for informational purposes only and does not constitute personalized medical advice. Please consult a physician before using any herb for the first time.