What Are the Evidence-Backed Benefits of Elderberry?

27 July, 2020
Elderberry is known for its ability to strengthen the immune system and help relieve coughs, flu, and colds. What does the evidence say about it? In this article we'll tell you everything you need to know.

The benefits of elderberry (Sambucus) are well documented in natural medicine books. In fact, they’ve been the subject of interest in various scientific studies, which have endorsed some of its uses in relation to health. What does the evidence say?

To start, you should know that there are around 30 types of elderberry trees and plants in the world. However, the European version (Sambucus nigra) is the most popular in terms of medicinal applications. You can use the flowers, berries, and bark of the plant.

Beneficial components of elderberry

When it comes to health, the part of the elderberry that is most used is its black berries. These stand out for their content of organic pigments, tannins, carotenoids, amino acids, vitamin C and other nutrients whose intake contributes to the prevention of diseases.

In particular, as detailed in a review published in the Journal of Functional Foods, elderberries contain:

  • From 6 to 35 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams, that is, up to 60% of your daily recommended intake
  • 7 grams (0.25 oz) of dietary fiber per 100 grams (4 oz)
  • Phenolic acids
  • Quercetin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin
  • Anthocyanins

Evidence-backed benefits of elderberry

Today, many of the benefits of elderberry are used to make supplements and natural products. In fact, this is the best way to consume them, since the raw berries, bark, and leaves have toxic compounds that can cause stomach issues if not used properly.

However, it is important to clarify that, although elderberry has positive health effects supported by evidence, it’s not a first-line treatment against diseases and it’s not a substitute for medical recommendations. For this reason, when faced with any illness, it’s essential to first consult a doctor.

Elderberry for Flu and Cold

Sick woman checking temperature, one of the benefits of elderberry is relieving cold symptoms.
People have used elderberry traditionally to help alleviate cold and flu symptoms.

People have used elderberry remedies since ancient times as adjuvants against flu and cold symptoms. A tea made from both the flowers and the extract of the berries seems to reduce the severity and duration of the infection when consumed at the first sign of symptoms.

A study published in 2019 through Complementary Therapies in Medicine determined that the berries, due to their antioxidant components, have positive effects against upper respiratory symptoms.

Additionally, in 2012, another study published in Journal Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry proposed that these fruits help stimulate the immune response, lowering the risk of infections such as influenza.

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Benefits of elderberry for heart health

One of the most prominent benefits of elderberry has to do with heart health. Specifically, studies have shown that the berries have positive effects on the health of the heart and blood vessels. A review published in Phytotherapy Research suggests that the fruit of the plant helps reduce the risk of heart disease thanks to its anthocyanin content.

These substances, which act as antioxidants, seem to reduce the accumulation of cholesterol in the arteries. In addition, they would also have a positive effect on blood pressure. Although more studies are needed, the findings support its use to support a healthy heart.

Against constipation

A publication on the Penn State School of Medicine and Academic Medical Center page states that elderberry has a slight laxative effect and therefore should not be consumed simultaneously with other laxatives. Scientists attribute this property to a substance known as anthraquinone, which is also found in rhubarb and senna.

They also explain it by its significant contribution of fiber, which contributes to optimal intestinal function. In general, dry elderberry tea helps stimulate intestinal peristalsis to promote the elimination of waste. We need more evidence, but it’s considered safe when taken for up to 5 days.

Other possible benefits of elderberry

For now, there isn’t enough evidence to affirm that elderberry has an exceptional role in disease prevention. Still, due to its antioxidant content, it can have other positive health effects. Of course, you should still accompany its consumption with a healthy lifestyle.

  • The anthocyanins in elderberry give it an anti-inflammatory effect that can contribute to the relief of physical pain.
  • A study published in Phytotherapy Research highlights that black elderberry has antiviral and antimicrobial properties that are useful against pathogens that cause sinusitis, bronchitis, and intestinal infections.
  • In animal research, elderberry had a diuretic effect, capable of stimulating the frequency of urination.
  • Its antioxidants and nutrients also act positively on mood. In particular, it improves mental performance and reduces the risk of depression.
Woman with constipation sitting on the toilet, a benefit of elderberries is to relieve constipation.
Elderberry has laxative effects and high fiber content, which makes it promote peristalsis.

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Side effects of elderberry

In most healthy adults, moderate consumption of elderberry isn’t a problem. However, it’s extremely important to avoid excessive consumption, as it can irritate the stomach due to its lectin content.

On the other hand, the elderberry plant contains substances called cyanogenic glycosides, which can release small doses of cyanide. Of course, the amount of this substance per 100 g is only 3% of the estimated lethal dose for a person.

Additionally, commercial supplements and cooked elderberries have not been shown to have cyanide and are, therefore, safe. Ingesting any part of the raw plant, be it berries, leaves, or bark, can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Elderberry-based products, like supplements with the plant or berries, are contraindicated for children under 18 and women who are pregnant or lactating. People with a particular disease should consult a doctor before taking these types of remedies.

  • Sidor, A., & Gramza-Michałowska, A. (2015, October 1). Advanced research on the antioxidant and health benefit of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) in food – a review. Journal of Functional Foods. Elsevier Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2014.07.012
  • Hawkins, J., Baker, C., Cherry, L., & Dunne, E. (2019). Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine42, 361–365. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2018.12.004
  • Kinoshita, E., Hayashi, K., Katayama, H., Hayashi, T., & Obata, A. (2012). Anti-influenza virus effects of elderberry juice and its fractions. Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry, 76(9), 1633–1638. https://doi.org/10.1271/bbb.120112
  • Vlachojannis, J. E., Cameron, M., & Chrubasik, S. (2010, January). A systematic review on the Sambuci fructus effect and efficacy profiles. Phytotherapy Research. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.2729
  • Beaux, D & Fleurentin, J & Mortier, F. (1999). Effect of extracts of Orthosiphon stamineus Benth, Hieracium pilosella L., Sambucus nigra L. and Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (L.) Spreng. in rats. Phytotherapy research : PTR. 13. 222-5. 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1573(199905)13:3<222::AID-PTR447>3.0.CO;2-P.
  • Porter, R. S., & Bode, R. F. (2017, April 1). A Review of the Antiviral Properties of Black Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) Products. Phytotherapy Research. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.5782