Can it really help their immunity?
What is Elderberry?
Elderberry is a dark purple berry that comes from the black elder tree or Sambucus Nigra.¹ For centuries, the berry and flower of this tree have been used as a remedy for colds, flus and respiratory infections. Native Americans even found use for the hollow stems of the elder tree by making them into musical instruments and toys.² Also, according to Christian history the elder tree is depicted as a tree of sorrow because the cross on which Jesus was crucified was supposed to be an elder tree.²
While both the flower and berry are used, the juice extracted from the berry is typically referred to as elderberry. One can find the extracts from the elder tree in all sorts of medicinal supplements such as syrups, gummies, teas, juices and even wine!
Elderberry Health Benefits?
Elderberries contain many positive, natural compounds such as sugars, organic acids, flavonoids, and polyphenols.² Perhaps the most important of these being high amounts of anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are naturally occurring and are responsible for the blue/red pigments in flowers and plants. They also fight to reduce oxidative stress on the body! Thanks to these flavanols and anthocyanins, the antioxidant capacity of these tiny berries ranks high when compared to other small fruits like cranberries and blueberries.³
Elderberry Side Effects?
In contrast to the good qualities listed above, parts of the elder tree contain a cyanide called sambunigrin. If sambunigrin is ingested it can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If it is eaten in large quantities it can cause very serious illness, hospitalization or worse.¹⁻² It is not recommended to consume raw elderberries. Cooking them is what removes the toxin from the plant. Additionally, it is ill advised to try to prepare syrups at home as there have been reports of accidental poisoning.⁴
How Did Elderberry Become So Popular?
People turn to elderberry to prevent and treat a myriad of viral and bacterial illnesses. So, come cold and flu season the talk of this little fruit frequently arises. In 2018 flu season was particularly bad and elderberry sales in the US more than doubled to over $100 million.⁵ It is now one of the most frequently used plants for medicinal purposes.
Does Elderberry Work?
There have been several small clinical and in-vitro trials testing the effectiveness of elderberry to treat Influenza A, Influenza B, HIV, Herpes, and middle ear infections.⁵⁻⁹ Some of these studies have shown that elderberry can reduce the aggressiveness of the virus and promote a better immune response. However, the results of the human studies are mixed and many recommend further studies with a larger sample size, and more varied demographics in participants. This includes more data on the safety of taking elderberry in pregnancy or while lactating as there are very few studies on this.¹
Another thing to keep in mind and what many studies conclude is that elderberry preparation varies widely. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbal supplements. Some of the available supplements may have lower flavonoid content, therefore, the elderberry products may be less effective.
The long and the short of things is that we just do not know enough yet. In the future, elderberry could be a solution, but currently the research is conflicting. Some studies say it helps, some say it does not have an effect.
Elderberry and COVID-19?
If there is not enough research to show elderberry's effectiveness against the flu, then there is DEFINITELY not enough research to show its effectiveness against COVID-19. Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest it is safe to take with this virus. There are no published studies that have tested use of elderberries in preventing or treating COVID-19.¹ Actually, the FDA has taken action against companies who have falsely advertised claims for their product's success against Coronavirus.¹
Should I give my child Elderberry to keep them well?
There is no substitute for a healthy, well rounded diet full of fruits and veggies in all forms. This is a surefire way to provide your child with the immune-boosting antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that they need to stay healthy. Also, as a parent you will know you are giving them something that is certainly safe!
There are other ways for your child to get the anthocyanin benefits that elderberry boasts. Consider offering your child more foods that have the purple/blue/black pigments such as blueberries, cherries, blackberries, black plums, currants, red cabbage and purple potatoes.
Despite promising research of elderberry benefits, it should not replace the flu shot or other medical advice. Moreover, parents should not bank on elderberry to prevent you or your child from catching COVID-19. Instead, take the steps that the CDC recommends to keep you and your family safe.
1. Elderberry. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/elderberry. Updated August 2020. Accessed January 25, 2021.
2. Schmitzer V, Veberic R, Stampar F. European elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) and American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis L.). Botanical, chemical and health properties of flowers, berries and their products. Berries: Properties, Consumption and Nutrition; 2012;127-148.
3. Cejpek K, Malouušková I, Konečnỳ, Velíšek J. Antioxidant activity in various prepared elderberry foods and supplements. Czech J Food Sci; 2009; 27:45-48.
4. Roy J. No, elderberry will not prevent the flu. Los Angeles Times. October 17, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/lifestyle/story/2019-10-17/elderberry-flu-colds-prevention. Accessed January 25, 2021.
5. Macknin, M., Wolski, K., Negrey, J. et al. Elderberry Extract Outpatient Influenza Treatment for Emergency Room Patients Ages 5 and Above: a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. J GEN INTERN MED; 2020; 35:3271–3277. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-020-06170-w
6. Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res; 2004; 32(2):132-40. doi: 10.1177/147323000403200205. PMID: 15080016.
7. Kong F. Pilot Clinical Study on a Proprietary Elderberry Extract: Efficacy in Addressing Influenza Symptoms. Online Journal of Pharmacology and PharmacoKinetics; 2009; 5:32-43.
8. Sahpira-Nahor O, Zakay-Rones Z, Mumcuoglu M. The effects of Sambucol ® on HIV infection in vitro. Ann Israel Congress Microbiol; 1995.
9. Serkedjieva J, Manolova N, ZgorniakNowosielka I, Zawilinska B, Grybek J. Antiviral activity of the infusion (SHS-174) from flowers of Sambucus nigra L., aerial parts of Hypericum perforatum L., and roots of Saponaria officinalis L. against influenza and herpes simplex viruses. Phytother Res; 1990; 4:97–100.