Harvested from the ancient Sambucus elder tree, elderberries and elderflowers have been a widespread source of plant-based nutrition and medicine forever and a day.
They’re tiny black/blue fruits that come from the Sambucus tree. Elderberries have played a role in traditional medicine since… well, ever, TBH.
The ancient Egyptians used elderberries for their complexions and to heal burns and scars. These vibrant, versatile berries also boast a place in Indigenous history as a treatment for fever, headaches, dental pain, and rheumatism. And, bonus: they’re a handy amulet against evil (although no modern studies support this).
Although definitive research is in pretty short supply, many people swear by elderberries’ healing and health-boosting properties. They use this medicinal plant to fortify their immune system against infections and illnesses like colds and flu.
People cook down the tart berries to make delicious elderberry goodies, syrups, teas, or even boozy treats packed with antioxidant goodness. But you have to be careful. Uncooked elderberries, along with the bark and leaves of the elder tree, are poisonous. They can cause nasty digestive upsets.
But are the purported health benefits of elderberry real, or is this punchy little fruit all mouth and no trousers? Here are the deets on the health benefits of elderberries.
Elderberry has an established role in traditional medicine. For centuries, anecdotal evidence has suggested that they help with cold and flu symptoms and other infections.
That being said, there’s little in the way of scientific research confirming elderberries’ effects on health, and more reliable studies are necessary. So let’s take a look at some of the potential health benefits of these dark little fruits.
May help cold and flu symptoms
You’ll see elderberry marketed as an immune booster that can treat or prevent colds and flu, and some limited evidence supports these claims
In a 2016 study, researchers dosed up 312 people with elderberry extract capsules or placebo three times a day before a long-haul flight. They then tracked who became ill 4 days after travel.
They noted a significant difference in the number of colds between the two groups, with 12 in the elderberry group and 17 in the placebo group. Additionally, the elderberry group experienced shorter illnesses with less severe symptoms.
Although these results are promising, further research is needed to confirm elderberry’s role in soothing cold and flu symptoms.
May help support heart health (but the research is unclear)
Traditionally, elderberry has a rep for boosting heart and blood vessel health. But the results of harder research are mixed.
A 2017 study with a beverage containing a mixture of berries including elderberries showed improvements in cardiometabolic risk factors. This suggests that elderberries have preventive potential in respect to cardiovascular disease.
However, a 2010 review found that the picture of elderberry’s beneficial heart effects is slightly fuzzier.
The authors noted that high doses of elderberry, equivalent to 4 grams of anthocyanidin daily, may help reduce fat in the blood after eating.
In contrast, another study where volunteers consumed a dose of elderberry juice equivalent to 120 milligrams of anthocyanidin every day found little effect. But this could be due to the much smaller dose.
May help with blood sugar levels
Elderberries might just help balance blood sugar by increasing insulin secretion and boosting the rate that your cells take in glucose. Some experts think it has potential in treating diabetes because of these effects on blood sugar.
A 2017 lab study on rats with type 2 diabetes found that a certain type of elderberry extract can significantly reduce blood sugar. While this doesn’t necessarily apply to humans, it’s a useful finding that could play a role in more relevant studies.
The possible effects of elderberry come from its high levels of antioxidants. These substances protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals.
Free radicals are molecules that your body releases as part of normal metabolism. They are unstable and can react with other substances they encounter, causing a chain reaction that creates more free radicals.
A buildup of free radicals can lead to oxidative stress that contributes to diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Antioxidants can help you stall this process by providing a stable molecule to counteract the unstable one. This can prevent the creation of more free radicals, which helps slow down or prevent cellular damage. Pow! Right in the free radicals.
Elderberry flowers, fruits, and leaves are rich sources of antioxidant polyphenols — plant compounds — including anthocyanins, flavonols, phenolic acids, and proanthocyanidins, as well as terpenes. So getting elderberry in ya *may* boost your antioxidant levels.
A 2020 study found that elderberries were a plentiful source of antioxidants — particularly flavonoids and phenolic acids.
According to Food Data Central, 1 cup of fresh elderberries provides the following vitamins:
- 870 international units (IU) vitamin A
- 52.2 milligrams (mg) vitamin C
- 0.334 mg vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- 0.725 mg B3 (niacin)
Elderberry is a source of other nutrients and minerals, including:
- 0.957 gram (g) protein
- 26.7 g carbohydrates
- 10.2 g fiber
- 406 mg potassium
- 55.1 mg calcium
- 2.32 mg iron
- 7.25 g magnesium
Definitely don’t eat them raw, though. Here be toxins.
Elderberry is a versatile plant that you can prepare in different ways or buy as a commercial preparation.
Making your own elderberry syrup is significantly cheaper than heading to the store and is relatively straightforward. Plus, you can flavor it how you like.
Gummies are convenient, and you’re guaranteed quality ingredients without the risk of any side effects (so long as you stick to reputable brands). In addition, you can find vegan options that are suitable for people avoiding wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, or peanuts.
Gummies taste delicious and are useful options for people who have trouble swallowing pills.
Like gummies, capsules are a handy way to get your elderberry fix. You may find capsules are less pricey than gummies but provide the same benefits.
Some people prefer them because they are tasteless and odorless. But they can become brittle or soggy if you don’t store them the right way, so read the instructions carefully.
Elderberry extract is a concentrated, liquid product that you may find easier to take than a capsule or gummy.
You could even mix it with juice or smoothies if you’re not keen on the taste, although it’s supposed to taste similar to red wine (so no complaints here). If ingredients are a consideration, you can choose vegan products that are safe for those avoiding gluten and dairy.
If you prefer to do it yourself, then elderberry tea is the way forward. But you can buy elderberry teabags.
You may be able to buy elderberry juice, but many folks make it themselves. Don’t be tempted to drink the raw berries as juice — you need to cook them to remove toxic substances.
You’ll need to:
- Cook down berries with water for around 30 minutes.
- Cool the mixture.
- Strain it.
- Drink it.
There’s some promising evidence surrounding elderberry use, but nothing set in stone. Studies tend to be small without involving human subjects. (Sorry, rats, we love you, but…) Elderberries and their extracts are generally safe, though, and they might have some health benefits.
You can use elderberry in many ways. Why not slap some sweet elderberry syrup on your morning muesli?
Jazz up a cocktail with some berry juice. Think elderberry whiskey sour — yes, please. If that sounds right up your street, you can even find a liqueur made with elderflowers called St Germain. You can thank French monks for that!
Although you can eat elderflowers straight from the plant, calm your boots before popping some raw elderberries in your mouth. Unripe berries and other parts of the elderberry plant contain traces of toxic compounds.
One of these is lectin, which can cause nasty stomach issues if you eat too much. The other substances are cyanogenic glycosides. These can release a form of cyanide when you chew and digest them.
There have been reports of worrying side effects from the elder plant. A group of 11 people fell ill after drinking juice prepared from the berries, leaves, and branches of a Sambucus mexicana species of elder plant. They experienced nausea and vomiting.
Another report noted that some individuals became acutely ill with digestive and neurological symptoms after drinking elderberry juice made with raw berries, leaves, and bark.
If you’re into foraging and are planning on picking flowers or berries, make sure the plant is American or European elderberry, as other varieties may be more toxic. And it’s safest to avoid the bark and leaves.
You can err on the side of caution by cooking berries or sticking with a commercial preparation. This removes the toxic substances. Also, be *super* careful if you’re pregnant or lactating, as there isn’t data to confirm that you can use elderberry safely.
Elderberries have a long history in traditional medicine, thanks to some of their health-boosting properties.
Although there’s a lack of high quality, human studies to support these health claims, it seems that elderberries may help reduce cold and flu symptoms and may help with blood sugar management.
If you fancy trying out elderberries yourself, you can choose from a range of elderberry products, or you can forage in the wild for berries and make tea or syrup. But whatever you do, don’t eat raw elderberries, or you may find a nasty bout of vomiting and diarrhea is in the cards.