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herbal insight: Elderberry

Common name: Elderberry

Botanical name: Sambucus nigra

Botanical family: Adoxaceae

Parts used: ripe berry (flower is also used but this post is about the berry)

Traditional use

Elder berries and flowers have a long history of traditional medicinal and culinary use. In Native American and European cultures Elder has been used for centuries to treat colds, flus, and sinusitis. In England, Elder was referred to as 'the medicine chest of the country people'.


antiviral, immune stimulant, antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and diuretic

Constituents/plant chemicals

  • Elderberries are rich in anthocyanins which are responsible for its immune stimulating and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • The berries also contains flavonoids like quercetin, and polyphenols.

  • Elderberries are rich in nutrients and contain vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B9, C and E. As well as copper, zinc, iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Current research

Clinical evidence

Elderberry has been investigated in human clinical trials, mainly for the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections like colds and flus. Research shows that Elderberry may reduce symptom severity and duration of respiratory infections.

A 2016 randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled trial of 312 economy class passengers flying overseas investigated the impacts of Elderberry extract on respiratory health. Participants took either Elderberry or placebo daily starting 10 days before travel. Results showed that those taking Elderberry experiences shorter cold duration by 2 days compared to placebo. The placebo group had longer duration of cold episodes with more symptoms. This means that Elderberry has the ability to significantly reduce cold duration and symptoms when travelling via air. *no adverse effects were noted

An older study from Norway (1999-2000) investigated the efficacy and safety of Elderberry syrup for treating influenza A and B infections. Sixty healthy patients suffering from flu-like symptoms were enrolled in the study. They received Elderberry in regular acute doses, or placebo for 5 days. Flu symptoms were relieved an average of 4 days earlier, and the of rescue medication (e.g. paracetamol, medicated nasal spray) were significantly less in those receiving Elderberry. *no adverse reactions were reported

A small study involving children and adults found that Elderberry significantly improved influenza B symptoms (including fever) within 2 days of onset of the flu. 90% of the Elderberry group had completely recovered in 2-3 days, whereas the placebo group took 6 days to recover in comparison.

Laboratory (in vitro, in vivo) studies

In vitro and animal research has shown that Elderberry has antiviral and antibacterial actions especially associated with the respiratory tract. It has also been proposed that Elderberry may have some beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system due to the antioxidant, and cholesterol-lowering effects of polyphenols, however human clinical trials have not currently confirmed this.


Elderberry is safe when consumed in food amounts (e.g. syrups), or when short-term alcohol extracts are taken. Short duration of treatment is common for colds and flus, however a study found that taking Elderberry for 12 weeks was safe in adults.

Cautions: discontinue 7 days prior to general anaesthesia. Never eat raw and unripe berries as they are toxic and can cause nausea and vomiting in humans.

If you are on any medication, breastfeeding, lactating, or under 12 yo always check with a qualified naturopath or herbalist to see if this is right for you.


Tiralongo E, Wee S, Lea R. Elderberry supplementation reduces cold duration and symptoms in air-travellers: a randomzed, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Nutrients. 2015 Mar; 8(182):1-15

Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Apr;32(2):132-40

Zakay-Rones Z et al. Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract during an outbreak of influenza B Panama. J Altern Complement Med. 1995;1:361-369

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