Traditional Berry With Science-Backed Immune Effects
Consisting of clusters of purplish-black berries drooping from often large (up to 30 feet tall) deciduous trees native to Europe, black elderberries (Sambucus nigra) have a history of medicinal use that dates to before Hippocrates. This traditional fruit has a long history of culinary use as a juice, jam, and flavoring and has often been used as an immune health tonic because of its detoxifying, sweat-inducing, and fever-reducing properties. So, what is elderberry good for? Rich in anthocyanins and other compounds with medicinal benefits, current research supports elderberry’s benefits in preventing and treating upper respiratory tract conditions, including those that are seasonal, and virus induced.
Elderberry supplements contain a plethora of flavonoids including quercetin and rutin, anthocyanins, as well as vitamins A and C, all of which contribute to antioxidant and immune enhancing potential. Additional compounds of interest for elderberry’s health benefits include lectins and sialic acids, which likely contribute direct activity against viral and bacterial infections. While there are several species of Sambucus, research has demonstrated that Sambucus nigra (or black elderberry) is best suited for boosting the immune system as it has higher concentrations of the active constituents than other Sambucus species. Elderberry benefits and their mechanism of action are outlined below.
Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Activity
The phenolic compounds in elderberry, in particular the anthocyanins and other flavonoids, have direct antioxidant and free radical scavenging activity and have been found to regenerate other antioxidants in the body, such as vitamin E. Studies in cells and tissues have found that the anthocyanins demonstrate significant activity against free radicals, including the DPPH radical, which is a common measure used to evaluate antioxidant potential of various compounds. Furthermore, research shows that elderberry compounds also inhibit the oxidation of lipid molecules in the body, protecting fat cells from oxidative damage.
Research in human aorta cells has found that anthocyanins from elderberry are incorporated into endothelial cell membranes where they increase resistance to damage from free radicals, conferring protection to endothelial cells and tissues. It is clear that these elderberry antioxidants have powerful health effects.
Further studies indicate that elderberry extracts have significant anti-inflammatory effects.
Immune System Boost and Support
Traditional use shows that elderberry boosts the immune system. Scientifically, elderberry extracts have been found to modulate cytokine production in immune cells of both healthy and sick individuals. The balance of cytokines determines the activation status of the immune system, which leads downstream to the initiation of an immune response against invading bacteria or viruses. Research on elderberry and the immune system found that cytokine expression increased from monocytes, with increases seen in cytokines TNF-α, IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, and IL-10.
Human clinical studies support the health-promoting effects of elderberry extract as several studies indicate consumption of elderberry leads to quicker recovery from seasonal illnesses with a reduction in key symptoms and reduced downtime, with some studies suggesting that the length of symptoms is reduced by up to 50%.
Antiviral and Antibacterial Effects
Elderberry may have direct effects against several viral illnesses. Many viruses express what are termed as hemagglutinin spikes on their surface, which directly influences the ability of the virus to pierce cell membranes and enter cells. Elderberry extracts have been found to deactivate these spikes on viral surfaces, diminishing the ability of the virus to enter cells and replicate. In effect, this neutralizes the infectivity of the virus.
While the mechanisms of action continue to be studied, research has found that flavonoids from elderberry can bind to the surface of virus particles, making the virus inert. Other compounds from elderberry that have antiviral effects include fruit lectins. Of course, an indirect elderberry antiviral effect is because of immune stimulating properties, as described above. By supporting the immune system, a more robust immune response to viruses can be mounted.
Elderberry also has been shown to inhibit the ability of bacteria to infect and have negative consequences. Fruit lectins of elderberry competitively bind to host cell receptors, leaving less of these receptors vacant for bacteria to infect the cells, resulting in their neutralization. It is likely that several of the anthocyanins and flavonoids contained in elderberry also possess antibacterial effects and further research will continue to highlight these mechanisms.
The traditional health promoting benefits of elderberry continue to be validated by modern research. Used as a tonic for immune health for centuries, current research has identified several elderberry compounds that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and immune stimulating properties. This ancient culinary fruit with medicinal potential validated by scientific research deserves a place in any immune health armamentarium as a key preventative and therapeutic against seasonal challenges.
- Młynarczyk K et al. Journal of Functional Foods. 2018.
- Sambucus nigra (Elderberry). Monograph. Alternative Medicine Review. 2005.
- Porter RS, Bode RF. Phytotherapy Research. 2017.
- Tiralongo E et al. Nutrients. 2016.
Tags: Elderberry, Sambucus nigra, immune, microbiome, inflammation, antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant, cytokines, anthocyanins, flavonoids
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