Elderberry: Health Benefits & Possible Side Effects
What are elderberries?
Elderberry flowers and leaves were traditionally used to manage inflammation, pain, and swelling. Today, the berry is most commonly found in supplement, syrup, or tea form to support the immune system and help fight illness symptoms.
Health benefits of the elder plant include naturally improving:
- sinus issues
- nerve pain
- chronic fatigue
- even cancer
Research published in the Journal of International Medical Research shows that the plant can be used to relieve symptoms and reduce the severity of flu and cold symptoms. During the 1995 Panama flu epidemic, the government used elderberry to combat the flu.
Health benefits of elderberries:
1. May help manage cold and flu symptoms.
Elderberry is often recommended during cold and flu season. A liquid extract from the berry has been shown to limit activity against pathogenic bacteria, influenza, and the common cold, Carrasco says.
One study published in the Journal of Functional Food specifically looked at the influenza virus in vitro and found that elderberry extract “showed mild inhibitory effect at the early stages of the influenza virus cycle, with a considerably stronger effect in the post-infection phase.”
“In general, elderberries are an excellent source of antioxidants, which help to maintain a strong immune system,” functional medicine doctor Tiffany Lester, M.D., tells mbg. “Especially against viruses.”
2. Rich in nutrients.
Elderberries are a good source of vitamins and minerals. While the nutritional values will vary by product, 1 cup of raw elderberries contains:
- Calories: 100
- Fiber: 10.2 g
- Magnesium: 7.25 mg
- Phosphorus: 56.6 mg
- Potassium: 406 mg
- Vitamin C: 52.2
3. High in antioxidants.
“Elderberries contain flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins, and phenolic acids, which protect against the oxidative stress caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS),” Carrasco says. Too much ROS has been linked to the development of many chronic and neurodegenerative diseases. Therefore, adding these antioxidants to the diet may lower the risk of developing chronic illness.
Elderberry should not be used in place of prescription medicines or other treatments. Anyone thinking about adding elderberry to their supplement routine should consider consulting a doctor.
4. Sinus Infection Symptoms Reduced
Elderberry’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties make it a natural choice to treat sinus problems and other diseases that affect the respiratory system. Sinus infection refers to a condition where the sinus cavities and nasal passages become inflamed. This antiviral herb is promising as a remedy for sinus infections.
The Institute of Complementary Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine, University Hospital in Zurich (Switzerland ) conducted a study that examined the effects of Sinupret which contains elderberry extract. Sinupret was used to treat bacterial sinusitis. It also included an antibiotic (doxycycline, vibramycin) as well as a decongestant. The combination performed better than those who didn’t take Sinupret.
5. Reduce Blood Sugar
The elderflower and berry have been traditionally used to treat diabetes. Research has shown that elderflower extracts stimulate insulin secretion and glucose metabolism, which may help lower blood sugar levels.
The Journal of Nutrition published research that evaluated blackberry’s insulin-like actions and insulin-releasing abilities in vitro. Aqueous elder extract significantly increased glucose transport, glucose metabolism and glycogenesis without the addition of insulin.
Glycogenesis refers to the process of removing excess sugar from the bloodstream into your muscles and liver. This helps maintain normal blood sugar levels.
A 2017 animal study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found elderberries could be used as a source of bioactive substances for diabetes management formulations. The berry’s lipophilic as well as polar extracts reduced insulin resistance in type 2 diabetic rats, according to researchers.
6. Uses natural diuretic properties
A diuretic is any substance that increases the production of urine. Research shows that elder flowers, leaves, and berries were used in rural areas as a natural medicine for their diuretic properties. The bark of the plant was also used for its diuretic effects and slimming properties.
When the body has too much fluid, doctors prescribe diuretics. This is common in older adults. Elderberry acts as a safe diuretic and promotes bowel movements. This helps to prevent fluid retention.
7. Encourages regularity
Elder plants were used in folk and traditional medicine to treat constipation. To improve regularity, it was often added to herbal remedies.
Research suggests elderberry tea may help with constipation. In a small, randomized trial, it was found that an elderberry-containing compound could be used as a natural laxative to treat constipation.
However, it is not known if elderberry can be used to relieve constipation. More research is needed.
Potential side effects and risks of elderberry:
1. May contain potentially toxic substances.
The bark, leaves, and root of the elderberry plants contain sambunigrin, which can release cyanide, Carrasco says. When ripe or cooked, however, the berries don’t contain the potentially toxic substance. “If you are making your own syrup, make sure that you thoroughly cook the berries,” Carrasco adds.
2. Could be high in added sugars.
When taking elderberry in gummy supplement or syrup form, Lester says to keep the added sugar content in mind. “Sugar in all forms is inflammatory, so I encourage people to look at the labels and choose the lowest added sugar content available,” she says.
3. Might react negatively with COVID-19.
Despite being known for immune-supporting benefits, some experts have raised concerns about the way elderberries react to the coronavirus. Elderberry activates inflammatory cytokines in the body, which, in the face of the cold and the flu, can be beneficial. However, when introduced to the COVID-19 virus, those cytokines may produce at a rapid and uncontrollable rate (called a cytokine storm), integrative immunologist Heather Moday, M.D., explains. “It’s rare but often fatal and can happen with other viruses and bacteria, too,” she says.
The research on this topic is still developing, and there’s no conclusive evidence that elderberry creates a cytokine storm in all COVID-19 patients. To avoid any potential risks, Lester suggests taking other immune-supporting supplements, like vitamin C, vitamin D, quercetin, glutathione, and zinc.
In general, elderberry supplementation can be a safe and effective way to increase nutrient intake, antioxidants, and protect against cold and flu symptoms. However, if someone tests positive or shows symptoms of COVID-19, Moday says it should be avoided—just in case.
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