Like many herbs that I use in my clinic on a day-to-day basis, Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) has been around for quite a while. Thousands of years, in fact. It is a well-known plant that was used by Native Americans, those living in medieval Europe and even right back to the ancient Egyptians. And let’s not forget, sometimes wizards like to make wands out of the wood of the Elder tree (for those of you who are Harry Potter fans!). These cultures used elderberry extensively to relieve symptoms of colds and flus, constipation, headaches and lower back pain. It was also (and still is) used as a flavouring for wines and cordials. In herbal medicine, both the flowers and the berries can be used, however the berries have been researched more than the flower.
Interestingly, now that we are in our modern ‘scientific age’, we have the ability to examine herbal medicines like Elderberry more closely to see whether there is any truth supporting the traditional use as a medicinal plant. And as it turns out Elderberry packs a pretty good punch, both nutrient-wise and as an effective natural medicine. Amazing stuff!
Defense against colds & flus
Who wants a flu to last any longer than it needs to? Elderberry has been found to both prevent flu viruses, and (if you are unlucky enough to catch one) reduce the length of time that you are unwell, as well as help reduce the severity of symptoms you experience. It does this by interfering with the flu virus’s ability to replicate – effectively Elderberry stops the flu from being able to enter your cells and 'breed'. This benefit appears to be most effective if the herb is taken within the first 48 hours of flu symptoms.1 It also helps boost your body’s own natural immune defenses, so that you can fight off the infection quicker. In addition to being effective against viruses, elderberry can also be used against bacterial infections, as it has been shown to be helpful for upper respiratory tract infections 2 and the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers.
Being quite potently blue/purple colour (check out that picture!) means that the elderberry fruit contains high levels of antioxidants, in particular a very valuable group of antioxidants known as anthocyanins. Antioxidants are crucial compounds that help protect your cells from damage. They can help reduce inflammation, improve blood pressure (by affecting blood vessels) and cholesterol levels. They also happen to be natural anti-ageing compounds!
Yes, occasional allergic reactions to elder herb (either flower or berry) can occur. Elderberry is thought to be safe in pregnancy, but it hasn’t been specifically studied for this, so it is a good idea if you are pregnant and thinking of using elderberry to not take it in large quantities. Also, the berries are not safe to eat unripe or uncooked – they contain a dangerous compound, which is made safe when the berries are heated.3 As always, it is best to see a qualified naturopath or herbalist who can ensure that you are getting the safest, most effective product for your needs.
1 Zakay-Rones, Z., Varsano, N., Zlotnik, M., Manor, O., Regev, L. Schlesinger, M. et al. Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama. J Altern Complement Med. 1995 Winter;1(4):361-9.
2 Krawitz, C., Mraheil, MA., Stein, M., Imirzalioglu, C., Domann, E., Pleschka, S., and Hain, T. Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Feb 25;11:16. Doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-16.
3 Braun, L. *& Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & natural supplements: an evidence-based guide (4th ed) vol 2. p301. Sydney: Churchill Livingstone.