Elder (Sambucus nigra), also known as Common or Black Elder, is a flowering shrub that shares its family tree with about 30 cousins that belong to the Adoxaceae family. They all produce berries that range in color from deep violet or red to bluish-black. An important distinction to be made between them, though, is the fact that many species produce poisonous berries. When speaking of Elder Berries, or what we commonly refer to simply as elderberry, we’re speaking of Sambucus nigra, exclusively. There are several different types of elder, such as American elder (Sambucus Canadensis, the American Elderberry), but Sambucus nigra, or European elder (also called black elder), is the one used most often for medicinal purposes. Although the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) has been more well studied and cultivated, the American elderberry has been found to contain similar anti-cancer compounds. Their properties are very similar. Elder – European Elder Tree is a tree native to Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, and it also grows in the United States.
Traditional Use of Elder Berry
Before the Elder Berry wine came into existence in the 17th century, its use was already well-known among the ancient Egyptians and the Indian tribes. Some used the berry to heal burns and some, as an ingredient in teas and other beverages. Pies, pancakes, muffins, jams and jelly are among the many food stuffs which can be made with the elderberry as one of its ingredients. North America, Europe, Western Asia and North Africa are some of the places wherein, the elderberry also known as the ‘medicine chest’, has been in tremendous medicinal use. Elderberry, or elder, has been used for centuries to treat wounds, when applied to the skin. Elderberries have been a folk remedy for centuries in North America, Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, hence the medicinal benefits of elderberries are being investigated and rediscovered. The ancient Egyptians discovered that applying elderberry flowers improved the complexion and healed burns. All parts of the elder have long enjoyed a strong medicinal reputation on their own merits, however, only the berries and flowers are recommended for internal use today.
Plant description of Elder Berry
European elder is a large shrub or small tree that grows from 10 to 30 feet tall in wet or dry soil in a sunny location. Deciduous leaves grow in opposite pairs and have five to seven leaflets. In June and July it has white flower clusters which then develop into green then shiny black berry clusters. It shows yellow and white blossoms in early summer, followed by deep blue or black berries which usually ripen around September. Flowers can also be white and flat-topped with five primary rays. According to Michael Murray, ND, author of “The Pill Book Guide to Natural Medicines” only blue and black berries have medicinal properties and have been used in folk medicine since the time of the Romans. The medicinal parts of the plant include the roots, bark, young shoots, leaves, flowers and the preserved or cooked, ripe black berries. The red elderberry seeds are toxic. This is a similar but different plant so make sure you know the difference.
Chemical Ingredients of Elder Berry
Elderberries contain organic pigments, tannin, amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, vitamin A and B and a large amount of vitamin C. In fact, elderberries contain more vitamin C than any other herb except for black currants and rosehips. They are also mildly laxative, a diuretic, and diaphoretic. Elderberries are rich in flavonoids which are natural compounds with antioxidant qualities that protects cells against damage or infections. Elderberries have the highest antioxidant capacity of various small fruits as measured using the Oxygen Radical absorbance Capacity (ORAC) method. Elderberries had a value of 147 compared to 62 for blueberries, 95 for cranberries, 53 for mulberries, 40 for raspberries and 36 for strawberries. Flavonoids, including quercetin, are believed to account for the therapeutic actions of the elderberry flowers and berries. According to test tube studies these flavonoids include anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants and protect cells against damage. The class of flavonoid that elderberry is loaded with is anthocyanins. The elderberry is the most concentrated source of anthocyanins.
Parts used: Parts of the elder tree – such as the berries and flowers – have long been used for pain, swelling, infections, coughs, and skin conditions. Berries must be cooked before they are taken. Raw berries contain a chemical similar to cyanide. The dried flowers (elder flower) and the cooked blue/black berries (elderberry) of the European elder tree are used in teas, liquid extracts, and capsules.
Health Benefits of Elder Berry
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), elderberry may help ease pain, swelling, infection, cough, skin conditions, flu, cold, fever, constipation and sinus infections.
Elder Berry for Flu and cold
The results of a clinical trial, published in the International Journal of Medical Research in 2004, showed flu patients given one tablespoon of elderberry extract four times per day recovered in an average of 3.1 days, compared to 7.1 days for those given a placebo. A standardized elderberry extract may offer a safe, natural alternative to treat influenza type A and B, suggest A. Jakay Rones and associates, based on their double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the winter 1995 issue of “Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, New York”. The efficacy of this elderberry extract was assessed on a group of subjects during a major outbreak of influenza virus in Panama in 1993. The authors found that 90 percent of subjects who took elderberry extract were completely cured within two to three days, whereas the placebo group took up to seven days to achieve the same results. Elderberry also contains lectins, a component that is known to be effective against ten different strains of the flu virus. Another preliminary study found that a lozenge with elderberry extract (ViraBLOC) helped reduce flu symptoms when taken within 24 hours of symptoms starting. Bioflavonoids and other proteins in the juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell. One study suggested that using a standardized elderberry extract, Sambucol (a patented Israeli drug), could shorten the duration of flu by about 3 days. Sambucol also contains other herbs plus vitamin C, so it is not known whether elderberry by itself would have the same effect. Although some small studies show that European Elder Berry may relieve flu symptoms, the evidence is not strong enough to support this use of the European Elder Berry.
Elder Berry for Bacterial Sinusitis (Sinus Infection)
One study examined the use of a proprietary product, Sinupret, to treat bacterial sinusitis along with an antibiotic (doxycycline or Vibramycin) and a decongestant. People who took the combination did better compared to those who did not take Sinupret. However, Sinupret contains other herbs along with elderberry, so no one knows whether taking elderberry alone would work as well.
Elder Berry as Anti-virus
One of the most important health benefits of the elderberry stems from its anti-viral capabilities. These richly colored berries are a good source of flavonoids including quercetin and the anthocyanins. It appears these flavonoids have significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and can activate immune cells that help the body to fight off viruses. The elderberry fruit is also a source of components known as lectins which have been shown in the laboratory to stop replication of ten different strains of the flu virus.
Elder Berry against H1N1 virus
In the lab, one study suggested that elderberry could kill the H1N1 virus in test tubes, but researchers don’t know whether it would be effective against H1N1 in people. Another study conducted by B.Roschek, published in the July 2009 issue of “Phytochemistry” suggests that efficacy of elderberry extract is comparable with the efficacy of conventional preparations Tamiflu and Amantadine for H1N1 viral infections. According to the New York Times, February 5, 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) has even admitted that Tamiflu is not as effective as previously believed. Black Elderberry extract is considered to be an alternative for several flu viruses, both type A and type B. It’s a natural remedy that has no side effects and is inexpensive.
Elder Berry for Immunity
Elderberry is one of those natural herbs that can boost your body immunity like nothing else. In Israel, Hasassah’s Oncology Lab has determined that elderberry stimulates the body’s immune system and they are treating cancer and AIDS patients with it. At the Bundesforschungsanstalt research center for food in Karlsruhe, Germany, scientists conducting studies on Elderberry showed that elderberry anthocyanins enhance immune function by boosting the production of cytokines. These unique proteins act as messengers in the immune system to help regulate immune response, thus helping to defend the body against disease. Further research indicated that anthocyanins found in elderberries possess appreciably more antioxidant capacity than either vitamin E or vitamin C. Elderberry wine is known to boost the immune system of the body, rendering it to ward off virus causing infections. As mentioned, the wine is effective in treating influenza. The wine helps the immune system in its production of proteins which are known to fight infections. Elderberry wine helps treat sore throat, bronchitis and in providing relief from the different symptoms of upper respiratory diseases. Its immune-boosting properties also helps in relieving chest congestion and yeast infections. According to research by Dr. Rechkemmer, president of Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Nutrition and Food, the purple-black pigment of the elderberry containing the anthocyanins promote the production of cytokines. Cytokines are the body’s protein messengers that keep the immune system healthy, balanced, and strong. These little proteins are essential for the immune system to function properly and protect the body from harm. Cytokines are sent by the body during an immune system response directly to the sight of the trouble.
Elder Berry for Prevention of Cell Damage
Elderberry plants contain flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties. According to Rice University, antioxidants combat free radicals, which can damage cells. The cellular damage caused by free radicals can lead to serious problems, including cancer and accelerated aging, among other problems. Free radicals cause problems by starting chain reactions that primarily do damage to a cell’s membrane and DNA. If the damage to these areas is extensive enough, cellular death can occur. Antioxidants such as the flavonoids in elderberry safely bind to free radicals and prevent them from damaging cells. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, little evidence shows that ingesting elderberry specifically can prevent diseases associated with free radicals.
Elder Berry’s Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Several studies have found that anthocyanins are effective in preventing and treating chronic inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and many other diseases.
Elder Berry for weight loss
Elderberry may help you lose weight, according to an observational study conducted by C. Chrubasik and associates from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Freiburg, Germany. The study included 80 participants who consumed daily elderberry juice enriched with elderberry flower and berry powder extracts, as well as asparagus-based extracts. The authors found that this herbal formula significantly improved not only the weight, but the blood pressure, physical and emotional state of participants as well. More research is needed to confirm these clinical findings.
Elder Berry for Heart Health
Antioxidants have been found to decrease the risk of heart disease and heart attack. Research has found that the antioxidant activity in elderberry may help to lower bad (“LDL”) cholesterol levels and maintain good (“HDL”) cholesterol levels. Studies at Austria’s University of Graz found that elderberry extract reduces oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Oxidation of LDL cholesterol is implicated in atherogenesis, thus contributing to cardiovascular disease.
Elder Berry for Cancer Prevention
Besides the obvious benefits of a strong immune system, antioxidants have proven essential in promoting cellular health. Research shows that the anthocyanins in elderberries (flavonoids that give foods a red, blue, or purple color) may have potent anti-cancer properties.
Elder Berry as a Natural Support for Arthritis
The diuretic and anti-inflammatory activity of elderberries helps explain its use in rheumatic and arthritic conditions.
Elder Berry for regulating bowel activity
Elderberries as a syrup have a long-established effect in regulating bowel activity, moderating extremes of diarrhea and constipation.
Elder Berry as an energy Booster
Along with its immune system benefits and contribution to good circulation, the overall health benefits of elderberry may lead to improved energy levels.
Elder Berry for Eye Health
Eating foods high in antioxidants and other nutrients may also help to prevent eye diseases such as macular degeneration.
How to Take Elder Berry
Elderberry is available as a liquid, syrup, and tincture, as well as in capsule and lozenge forms. Dried elder flower is usually standardized to at least 0.8% flavonoids. Sambucol is standardized to 38% elderberry extract for adults and 19% for children. Sinupret contains 18 mg of elder flower.
Pediatric: Do not give elderberry or any product containing elder to a child without first talking to your pediatrician.
Pregnancy: Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take elderberry.
Sinupret: 2 tablets taken three times a day for bacterial sinusitis.
Sambucol: 4 tbsp. a day for three days for colds and flu.
Tea: Steep 3 – 5 g dried elder flower in 1 cup boiling water for 10 – 15 minutes. Strain and drink three times per day.
Side effects of Elder Berry
Toxic: Avoid dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus), as it can be toxic. Uncooked or unripe European elder tree berries are also toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, or severe diarrhea. Only the blue/black berries of elder are edible. Use a trusted preparation of elder because raw or unripe fruit – as well as the leaves, seeds, and bark – contain a chemical related to cyanide, which is poisonous.
Diuretic effect: Elderberry has diuretic properties, and users should not combine it with other diuretics because of the risk of dehydration.
Lowers Blood sugar: Those who take diabetic medications that lower blood sugar should not take elderberry, because elderberry has blood sugar-lowering capabilities that can lead to hypoglycemia, a complication of diabetes characterized by extremely low blood sugar.
With Chemotherapy drugs: Elderberry may also increase the side effects of chemotherapy drugs and interfere with the drug theophylline, an asthma medication, and immunosuppressants like prednisone.
Autoimmune disease: If you have an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, you should ask your doctor before taking elderberry, as it may stimulate the immune system.
Interactions: According to the UMMC, elderberry can react with numerous prescription medications.
Advice: In order to use an herbal product as safely as possible, consult your doctor first, do not take a bigger dose than the label recommends, take it under the guidance of a trained medical professional and be especially cautious if you are pregnant or nursing. Tell your health care provider about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This helps to ensure coordinated and safe care.