Have you heard of elderberry? It has gained attention over the past few years due to its potential immune supportive properties.
While elderberry may sound like a fruit that provides wisdom and healthy aging, it must be used with caution. This is especially true for those who are pregnant.
Read on to learn more about elderberry, find out what it does in the body, and see who should avoid it.
Even though elderberry seemed to be an overnight sensation in the past, it actually has a long history of use. Elderberry has deep roots (we couldn’t help ourselves!) in folk medicine, and has been used as a natural remedy for hundreds of years. The most common use for elderberry has been for immune support, and much of the recent research concerns its benefits to the immune system, as we’ll return to later on.
Elderberry is a dark purple berry that comes from a tree called Sambucus nigra, also known ast the black elder tree. The elderberry tree can grow up to thirty feet tall and is native to Western Asian, Northern Africa, and parts of Europe.
The elderflower and elderberry are both used medicinally, which in large part explains their popularity. While elderberries can be harvested from wild-growing trees, commercial orchards also contribute to meeting the recent rise in demand.
While they are technically fruits, you won’t find raw elderberries in a grocery store next to the blueberries. Elderberries have to be cooked before they can be consumed. Eaten raw, they can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Elderberries provide a mild, earthy flavor that is not too sweet and not too tart. Sweeter fruits can help bring out the natural flavors of elderberries. They also work well with citrus and honey. An expert chef may use elderberries to make jellies or use cooked and dried elderberries in baked goods.
Elderberries are both nutritious and delicious. One cup of elderberries provides 10 grams of dietary fiber and 52 milligrams of vitamin C. That’s almost 60% of the daily value for vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant! Elderberries also contain folic acid and vitamin A, another important antioxidant.
Elderberries are made into teas and herbal supplements or added to lozenges. As a dietary supplement, elderberry can be found in liquid, gummy, or capsule form.
Let’s dig more into the important nutrients and compounds that elderberry supplements can provide and discuss how this may contribute to their potential health benefits.
Our bodies make substances called “free radicals” from everyday activities, like breathing or exercise. Antioxidants, on the other hand, help protect our cells from the damage that free radicals cause.
Elderberry, as mentioned, contains antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin A. Elderberry also contains specific types of antioxidants, such as terpenoid compounds and polyphenols. Polyphenols are often associated with resveratrol in red wine, but this class also includes flavonoids found in tea, citrus fruits, and other berries.
The antioxidant properties of elderberry may, therefore, help support the healthy functions of the cells in our body and provide immune system support.
While it does appear that elderberry contains nutrients and compounds that could have health benefits, let’s take a look at what the research says.
A review of the research has shown that elderberry is a source of powerful antioxidants and may help the body manage oxidative stress from free radicals. This could help support the stability of cells. Interestingly, elderberry may have UV protection properties and could be used to protect the skin from the sun when used as an ingredient in cosmetic products.
The same review article also discussed the ability of elderberry to help increase glutathione levels. Glutathione. "Glutathione") is sometimes called the “master antioxidant,” and supports many areas of the body. Certain foods, like almonds, and activities, like meditation, have also been found to help boost glutathione levels.
We know that antioxidants may have general benefits for health, but how about the immune support that elderberry is so well known for?
Results from studies suggest that flying on airplanes can increase oxidative stress in the body due to development of free radicals. One clinical trial studied 312 airline passengers traveling from Australia to an overseas destination. One group was given 600 mg of elderberry in capsule form prior to the trip and then 900 mg of elderberry during and for four days after the trip. The other group was given a placebo of capsules that did not contain elderberry.The researchers found that those in the elderberry group had better immune function when compared to the placebo group. The benefits may be due to the antioxidant content naturally found in polyphenols present in elderberry.
Another study evaluated the use of oral elderberry syrup and immune function. There were two groups of participants who were given either elderberry syrup or a placebo multiple times per day for five days. They concluded that elderberry is safe and cost-effective as an immune-supporting supplement.
These two studies can help you understand how elderberry is studied. Now let’s look at a meta-analysis of clinical trials that was published in 2019. The findings suggest that elderberry may support respiratory health. More research is needed, but studies show promise for the role of elderberry in supporting the immune system. But are there any potential drawbacks?
Elderberry is generally considered safe over short periods of time, as demonstrated in studies. This study’s findings report that elderberry may promote immune function by supporting dendritic cells through the anthocyanins and polysaccharides. Dendritic cells are part of the innate immune system and they play a pivotal role in maintaining healthy immune function.
Now that we’ve covered the concerns over elderberry and the immune system, let’s talk about a few more precautions.
As we discussed before, elderberries must be eaten cooked and ripe or they can cause digestive symptoms, like nausea and vomiting.
Elderflowers are actually edible, but the unripe fruit of elderberry can be toxic. They contain compounds called cyanogenic glycosides (which include sambunigrin, prunasin, holocain, and zierin). Cyanogenic glycosides can convert to cyanide (yikes!), which leads to those nasty digestive symptoms.
Now remember, we are talking about elderberry in the raw and unripe forms. Toxic compounds are not found in commercial elderberry juice. When used as a dietary supplement, a reputable brand will take the proper measures to make sure they are providing elderberry from a safe source.
The research we discussed on elderberry and the immune system mostly included studies where elderberry was taken for a short period of time. That being said, it is also possible that elderberry could be useful for year-round immune support. This could include taking a lower daily dose and then increasing the dose if a “boost” is needed in preparation for travel.
However, elderberry supplements may NOT be appropriate for everyone. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement.
Up until now, we have focused our discussion on the benefits of elderberry in adults that are NOT pregnant.
Most research on dietary supplements does not include pregnant people. For one thing, this could influence the outcomes of the study. But more importantly, there could be an unknown risk to the pregnancy. Because of this, pregnant people are often told to avoid many dietary supplements. (With prenatal vitamins being one big exception.)
A survey found that dietary supplement use is low in pregnancy out of concern for the lack of safety information mentioned above.
When researchers reviewed the data on taking elderberry while pregnant, they could not find enough evidence to show that it is safe. Therefore, those who are pregnant should avoid elderberry. This does not necessarily mean that elderberry is dangerous during pregnancy, researchers just do not have enough information to say that elderberry is safe.
There is not enough evidence to determine whether or not elderberry is safe while breastfeeding. Therefore, once again, it’s best to avoid it.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and are looking for an alternative to elderberry tea, you may consider the following:
You can also support your immune system by making sure you are meeting your nutrient needs from a balanced diet. If you want to boost your antioxidant intake, eat the colors of the rainbow and include foods like berries, grapes, onions, spinach, and salmon.
Once you are no longer pregnant or breastfeeding, you may consider adding elderberry back into your routine.
When choosing an elderberry supplement, processing matters. Many elderberry juice powders have the antioxidants and fiber removed. But this is where many of the potential benefits may come from!
Instead, look for elderberry juice extract or concentrate that keeps the polyphenols and anthocyanins through the manufacturing process.
There is no set recommended daily dose of elderberry. Much of the research we looked at used 300-900 mg per day in the short-term. In capsule form, elderberry is often found at a dose of 475-500 mg per capsule.
Elderberry contains antioxidants such as polyphenols and other compounds that may help support healthy cells. It has also been studied for its potential role in supporting a healthy immune system.
However, there is not enough research to show that elderberry is safe to take during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.