The Health Benefits of Elderberry

Does elderberry syrup live up to the hype? Experts weigh in on its potential
elderberry berries and an elderberry syrup
© Can Stock Photo / Nastyaofly

Elderberry syrup is going viral for its antiviral properties right now, so the question is: does it live up to the hype? The short answer is yes, evidence shows elderberry can help support immunity. In lengthier reply, it’s important to remember that with any botanical remedy or DIY supplement, sourcing and product quality are important. If something is touted as a miracle cure, it probably isn’t. An antiviral remedy will not combat a dangerous bacterial infection, nor will most traditional herbal treatments provide a “quick fix.” But now that you know that elderberry can be a helpful tool in your kit for combating winter cold and flu, how do you use it?

Sambucus nigra

When referring to elderberry syrup, people are typically referring to the European black elderberry, a flowering plant from the Adoxaceae family. In historical folk medicine, elderberry has been described as a remedy for influenza, infections, sciatica, headaches, dental pain, heart pain and nerve pain, as well as a laxative and diuretic by using the dried fruit or juice. In modern-day, while generally considered beneficial, the primary uses of elderberry are to fight cold and influenza as well as provide nutritional support with a food high in fiber and antioxidants.

Additional benefits include being high in vitamin C, a source of phenolic acids, flavonols, and anthocyanins. Dr. Michelle Sexton, ND adds more on the benefits. ”It [elderberry] will replenish glutathione, which may be depleted during inflammation and protecting against glutathione deficiency (which is severely depleted by acetaminophen) has been shown to boost CD4+ T-cells. These are "helper cells" that are essential for a successful outcome from infection.”
Beyond the suggested benefits of this plant, it is generally agreed upon that supplementing with elderberry poses little potential for harm.

The Health Benefits of Elderberry

Dr. Danielle E. Gran, ND explains elderberry’s success. “Viruses, not bacteria, cause approximately ninety percent of common colds.  Though commonly prescribed, antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections and therefore not much use for curing a cold other than for their placebo effect.  (Of course, there can always be extenuating circumstances where antibiotics are necessary—trust your doctor.) While the conventional standard of care for the common cold is rest, increase fluid intake, and spread prevention, naturally, anti-viral herbs like elderberry can be incredibly helpful. This herb has been shown to shorten the duration of illness when compared to placebo, as well as reducing the severity of flu symptoms.”

Not just backed by the natural health community, there is a significant body of research by the conventional science community to support this idea.

How to Use Elderberry

Dr. Dennis Perry, ND recommends a multistep approach to supplementing for an immunity boost. “To prevent a cold or possibly flu, a teaspoon or two of black elderberry every other day or so, and a one-two punch if we note symptoms with doubling the elderberry and adding in zinc and vitamin C.” Note that zinc should be used for acute symptoms, and not as a long-term supplement in most cases. Dr. Perry goes on to note that black elderberry tincture can be purchased at grocery, health, or herb stores. You may be able to find elderberry syrup in the natural food section at the drug store but beware of the less desirable but usually effective sugary syrup. The alcohol-free, glycerite tinctures are the preferred form, but the alcohol extracts and sugar syrups work too.

It is important to note that the majority of research done on the effectiveness of elderberry has been focused on commercial products like those suggested above. When making your own elderberry syrup, there must be care in the harvesting, processing, and heating to obtain the beneficial health effects.

Elderberry has strong evidence supporting its immune-boosting benefits, but it is not a cure-all. That said, there is low potential for harm when taking properly prepared elderberry -- and it tastes good too. Remember to be aware of the ingredients and processing methods when choosing your product, and support your health with additional practices such as eating well and exercise.
Further Reading: