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What are the Benefits of Elderberry?

By: Salome Hartter, Master Herbalist

For years, the medicinal benefits of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) have been recognized globally. Researchers have explored its value for respiratory infections, diabetes, high blood pressure—nearly everything, really.

Traditionally, elderberry juice has been used as a gentle laxative and digestive aid and the flowers have been used as a cosmetic and eyewash. But of course, both the berries and the flowers are most famous for their ability to bring relief to colds, fevers, influenza, and other respiratory difficulties. What’s more, recent studies link elderberry supplements to greater immune resilience. Not only do they inhibit viruses, but they also improve immune function. Sounds promising, yes?

To substantiate this, Sambucol (an Israeli drug containing elderberry) was developed from the premise that elderberry contains compounds that are active against viruses and has been used with very positive results.

Often the benefits of elderberry are traced back to its high antioxidant and vitamin content. Here’s a list of elderberry’s most remarkable benefits that research has uncovered.

  • Anthocyanins deter replication of viruses by inhibiting neuraminidase (Tamiflu works by using this same mechanism.) Anthocyanins are also anti-inflammatory.

  • Flavonols fortify the heart and may help lower blood pressure.

  • The presence of antioxidant compounds suggest that elderberry can relieve oxidative stress and support a healthy inflammation response in the body.

  • Elder has generous quantities of Vitamins A, B & C. It contains potassium, magnesium, protein, and calcium.

  • And, in no particular order, elderberry soothes the respiratory tract and enhances the circulatory system. It is diaphoretic, somewhat laxative, and febrifuge. It tones the kidneys, relieves skin irritations, and moderates metabolic function. And it improves the immune system.

What more to like?

Is elderberry poisonous? Does it have adverse side effects?

Why do some statements say elderberry is poisonous and others say it has been used medicinally for centuries? Let’s see if we can explain this contradiction.

Elderberries are known to contain cyanogenic glycosides which can metabolize into cyanide and cause stomachache, nausea, diarrhea or even hospitalization in severe cases. Very rarely are they fatal.

But remember that these cyanogenic compounds are found mostly in the root, stems, and leaves of the elderberry plant and, for this reason, these parts of the plant generally are not used internally. Cyanogenic glycosides are also present in the seeds of the plant, but applying heat to the berries will break these glycosides down and make them entirely safe to take internally. To sum it up, elderflowers and cooked elderberries are not poisonous and are often used as supplements.

It is worth mentioning that various species of the genus Sambucus are known to contain different levels of cyanogenic glycosides and Sambucus nigra (the species used in our formulas) is the least noxious. The whole uncooked dried berries of this species are frequently and safely used in tinctures with no adverse effects.

To support this, English herbalist Henry Box said, “It is so harmless that you cannot use it amiss, and so effectual that you cannot give it in vain.” (Shook59)

Due to insufficient research, it is not clear whether or not elderberry is safe to take during pregnancy. For the average adult, elderberry supplements may be taken daily as a tonic or multiple times a day during illness.

How do you make elderberry tinctures?

Walnut Creek Botanicals offers two tincture kits that contain elderberry.

We like to combine elderberries with the immuno-stimulating properties of echinacea to maximize their potential. Echinacea stimulates the immune system into action and elderberry improves its efficacy. Both are powerfully antioxidant.

Our Elderberry Immune Kit is a ‘make-your-own-tincture’ kit we offer that includes Elderberries, Echinacea leaf, Echinacea root, Nettle leaf, Alfalfa leaf and Peppermint leaf. Complete with your choice of solvent, dropper bottle, dosing information and an instruction card, this elderberry tincture recipe teaches you how to make your own preparations. It ‘combines the powerful immune-boosting benefits of elderberries and echinacea’ to make a nice winter formula. It’s as easy as it sounds!

Another option is our Immune Booster Kit. This elder-echinacea recipe contains Echinacea leaf, Echinacea root, Elderflower, Yarrow, Peppermint and Nettle. Put it together, try it, and use it to support a healthy immune system. These kits are a nice way to help you feel comfortable with making your own tinctures.

*Shook, Edward E. Advanced Treatise in Herbology 1978

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