Elderberry and The Immune System
With cold and flu season fast approaching, there are many natural remedies to select from to foster a healthy immune response.
One of these natural remedies, that also happens to taste great, is Elderberry (Sambucus sp.). The plant has dark purple berries with white flowers and is native to Europe but has been naturalized to North America.
It is important to note that while the berries are rich in antioxidants, the roots and leaves of the plant are potentially toxic.
The berries and flowers of the plant are rich in anthocyanins, iron, vitamin A & vitamin C, and pectin. As a result of their diverse nutrient content, elderberry fruit can attack influenza viruses from multiple different pathways.
Anthocyanins belong to the flavonoid group of phytochemicals; commonly found in teas, wine, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and cocoa. They add vibrant colors of red, blue, and purple to these foods as well as a potent antioxidant capacity.
A high consumption of anthocyanins from food (eg. currants, raspberries, blueberries, red grapes, red cabbage, plums) may help to lower oxidative stress in people who have a high risk of cardiovascular disease. Intakes of 19-100mg daily of anthocyanins from food have been reported to reduce the levels of biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease risk (CHD, hyperlipidemia) (5,6).
Recent research into the human effects of anthocyanins has revealed their ability to strengthen blood vessels, balance the immune system, and combat inflammation (2,3).
The flowers and berries of the plant also have a diaphoretic action; helping the immune system to mount an optimal fever response to efficiently kill pathogens that are susceptible to the heat. At a microscopic level, elderberry promotes a healthy immune response against viruses by increasing the number of inflammatory molecules called cytokines (7).
Cytokines can cause local and systemic inflammation; encouraging immune cells to the area to help clear infection.
A recent study used elderberry to prevent the onset of influenza during air travel. The study looked at 600-900 mg of elderberry extract containing 90-135mg of anthocyanins. Study participants took 2 capsules per day for 10 days before air travel.
Two to four days before departure, the dosage was increased to 3 capsules per day, until 4 days after arrival at their destination (1).
Of the 312 participants taking the elderberry extract, 29 developed a cold. The group taking the placebo treatment had greater symptom severity and over twice the duration of illness compared to the elderberry group.
Furthermore, the combination of elderberry and antibiotics/decongestants may be an effective synergy to treat bacterial sinusitis (4).
To top off all the various functions of the fruit, it seems that the strongest effect of elderberry extract is in the post-infection period. This means that elderberry helps to recover immune function once an infection from the flu has been cleared (8).
Elderberry use may have favourable effects on glucose metabolism, insulin secretion, cholesterol, blood lipids, and blood pressure (4).
There are known interactions between elderberry and medications (eg. chemotherapeutics) so it is always a good idea to speak with a medical professional before using the flowers or berries.
1. Tiralongo E, Wee SS, Lea RA. Elderberry supplementation reduces cold duration and symptoms in air-travelers: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(4):182.
2. Lila, Mary Ann. “Anthocyanins and Human Health: An In Vitro Investigative Approach.” Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology 2004.5 (2004): 306–313. PMC. Web. 2 Nov. 2017.
3. Youdim K, Martin A, Joseph J. Incorporation of the elderberry anthocyanins by endothelial cells increases protection against oxidative stress. Free Radic Biol Med. 2000;29(1):51–60.
4. Ulbricht, Catherine & Basch, Ethan & Cheung, Lisa & Goldberg, Harley & Hammerness, Paul & Isaac, Richard & Purkh Singh Khalsa, Karta & Romm, Aviva & Mills, Edward & Rychlik, Idalia & Varghese, Minney & Weissner, Wendy & C Windsor, Regina & Wortley, Jayme. (2014). An Evidence-Based Systematic Review of Elderberry and Elderflower ( Sambucus nigra ) by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. Journal of dietary supplements. 11. 10.3109/19390211.2013.859852.
5. Peter J. Curtis, Paul A. Kroon, Wendy J. Hollands, Rebecca Walls, Gail Jenkins, Colin D. Kay, Aedín Cassidy, Cardiovascular Disease Risk Biomarkers and Liver and Kidney Function Are Not Altered in Postmenopausal Women after Ingesting an Elderberry Extract Rich in Anthocyanins for 12 Weeks, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 139, Issue 12, December 2009, Pages 2266–2271, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.109.113126
6. Kelley DS, Rasooly R, Jacob RA, Kader AA, Mackey BE Consumption of Bing sweet cherries lowers circulating concentrations of inflammation markers in healthy men and women. J Nutr. 2006;136:981–6.
7. Barak V., et al. The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines. Eur Cytokine Netw. 2001;12(2):290-6.
8. Torabian G., et al. Anti-influenza activity of elderberry (sambucus nigra). Journal of functional foods 2019; 54: 353-360.