Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of news about the immunological benefits of elderberry syrup or extract. Is there any scientific validity to this at all?
As we head into another cold and flu season—all while we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic brought on by another highly contagious and deadly respiratory virus—there’s a lot of interest in immune boosting foods and supplements.
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Elderberry is not a new discovery. It’s been used in folk medicine for centuries and elderberry-based supplements have been on the market for decades. But for some reason, I’ve gotten a lot more questions about it recently.
Just because there’s a lot of talk about elderberry, however, doesn’t mean there’s a lot to say about it. In fact, despite its long history as both a medicinal food and supplement, there’s been very limited research.
Elderberry has been used in folk medicine for centuries and elderberry-based supplements have been on the market for decades.
Perhaps the most verifiable claim is that elderberries (like most berries) are a good source of antioxidants. But it’s not clear that increasing our intake of antioxidants (beyond what you’d get from a generally healthy diet) has any positive effect on our health.
The role of antioxidants
Antioxidants, as the name implies, prevent oxidation. Oxidation is the chemical process that causes iron to rust, cut apples to turn brown, and oils to become rancid. In the body, unchecked oxidation can damage cells, membranes, and even DNA. Fortunately, the antioxidants in foods, as well as those manufactured by our own cells, help to prevent oxidative damage.
We need antioxidants to be healthy. But flooding the body with antioxidants doesn’t seem to make us any healthier. In fact, there are some concerns that too many antioxidants may actually have negative effects.
We need antioxidants to be healthy. But flooding the body with antioxidants doesn’t seem to make us any healthier.
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But beyond its antioxidant capacity, elderberry is also said to boost the immune system against respiratory ailments. It’s important to note that there is no research or data on how elderberry might affect infection rates or recovery from COVID-19. But there is a small amount of research on colds and flu.
Does elderberry protect against colds and flu?
The most recent study was conducted on airline passengers in 2013. This was a randomized, double-blinded, and placebo-controlled trial—the gold-standard in medical research. It involved over 300 passengers, all of whom were traveling from Australia to an overseas destination—so, an extended flight. Half were given an elderberry extract and half were given a placebo, which they started taking 10 days before their flight and for five days after their flight.
Over the course of the study, about 10% of the passengers reported coming down with a cold. Those taking the elderberry were just as likely to be affected as those taking the placebo. So the elderberry didn’t appear to provide any extra protection against infection. However, it did seem to reduce the duration and severity of the symptoms.
In the elderberry group, symptoms persisted for just under five days on average, versus seven days on average for the placebo group. The elderberry group also rated their symptoms as being less severe.
The elderberry didn’t appear to provide any extra protection against infection. However, it did seem to reduce the duration and severity of the symptoms.
There are a handful of other smaller studies on elderberry and influenza. Some of these studies have methodological flaws, but taken together, they do point to some positive effect on the reduction of flu symptoms.
None of the research so far supports the idea that taking elderberry on an ongoing basis will make you more resilient to infection. To avoid getting sick, your best bet (by far) is to keep your distance from anyone who is or might be sick, wash your hands frequently, and keep your hands away from your face.
A flu vaccine is also a good idea. But if you do come down with a cold or flu this winter, you could throw some elderberry at it and hope that it lessens the impact. Typical dosages are 1 tablespoon of syrup 4 times a day or 3 capsules per day.
Is elderberry safe?
No serious safety issues have been recorded. But because of a lack of data on elderberry’s safety during pregnancy, is not recommended for pregnant women. Should you be sourcing your own elderberries in the wild, be aware that to be safe to eat, they must be cooked. Raw elderberries can cause nausea, vomiting, or more serious toxicity.