“There are simple herbs and roots that every family may use for themselves, and need not call in a physician any sooner than they would call a lawyer.” —The Place of Herbs in Rational Therapy, 8
Elderberry at a Glance
Known by several names—elderberry, elder, sambuca—this medicinally-versatile flowering plant of the adoxaceae family is best-known worldwide for its immunostimulant properties and its remedial use as a cough syrup.
Both the elderberry’s fruit and flowers are used as dietary supplements in capsule form, as well as teas and extracts. Elderberries themselves are extremely low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, but provide a good source of vitamin A, vitamin B6, iron, potassium, and vitamin C.
What’s most impressive about its basic nutritional value is its whopping 11 grams of dietary fiber per 1-cup serving. That’s nearly three times the amount of fiber as 1 cup of carrots and a little over twice as much as spinach! One cup of apples or pears doesn’t even come close, and raspberries in all their fiber-y glory only manage 8 grams!
A single serving of elderberries provides over 40% of the body’s daily requirements for fiber. A diet rich in soluble and insoluble fiber is a preventative against disease and cancer as it aids the gastrointestinal system in nutrient uptake and eliminating waste and toxins.
Elderberry and the Immune System
“These old-fashioned, simple herbs, used intelligently, would have recovered many sick, who have died under drug medication.” —The Place of Herbs in Rational Therapy, 144
Within each fiber-rich elderberry are immune system-boosting chemical compounds called anthocyanidins. These immunostimulant compounds have been shown to shorten the duration, and reduce the symptoms, of common ailments, such as the cold and flu.
When it comes to various strains of the flu, elderberry extract, in particular, is most effective due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidal flavonoids—phytonutrients that provide pigmentation, as well as a potent defense against bacteria and a strong resistance to disease. These flavonoids phytochemically bind themselves to specific proteins on the surface of the influenza virus. Thus, the virus is enveloped by the elderberry flavonoid and restricted from attaching to and infiltrating the host’s cells. Studies have concluded that taking elderberry extract at the first signs of the flu has the capacity to reduce symptoms and duration by about 4 days.
The anthocyanidins and flavonoids in elderberries are so potent, in fact, that elderberry extract is used to battle autoimmune diseases and AIDS, alleviating and preventing many of the painful symptoms and flare ups so common in conditions directly affecting the immune system. Elderberry’s disease-resistant antioxidants specifically defend the white blood cells responsible for immune function. By protecting the structure of DNA from free radical pollutants, elderberries prevent chromosomal alteration, cell mutations, and cancerous cell growth.
Note: Elderberry may help certain autoimmune issues but, depending on the condition, its stimulation of the immune system could cause further problems, especially for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. (Those who have received organ transplants should avoid elderberry entirely.)
Elderberry as a Detoxifier
The more pure the blood and the more perfect its circulation, the better “it carries life and vigor to every part of the system” (Counsels on Diets and Foods, 91).
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds of elderberries make for excellent blood and kidney detoxification. Elderberries are a natural diuretic, laxative, and circulation stimulant.
As a diuretic, they assist in the work of the kidneys to remove and process toxins and impurities from the blood. Their ability to relieve fluid retention and promote the passing of urine permits greater success in expelling toxins more quickly from the kidneys through to the urinary tract.
As a laxative, elderberry compounds (and its fiber) encourage more productive and efficient bowel movements, leaving less toxic residue—if any at all—within the large intestine.
As a circulation stimulant, elderberry promotes another detoxifying process: sweating.
Anytime waste—whether liquid or solid—is more efficiently evicted from the body, the blood is made more pure and the waste management organs are freed to focus more energy on other vital functions. Overall, the detoxifying elements of elderberry compounds are successful because they activate the full potential of the body’s waste management systems. This increases the efficiency of all organs and raises energy levels throughout the body as a whole.
Elderberry and Blood Sugar
As an extract, the elderberries and elderflowers are useful in maintaining normal blood sugar levels because they increase glucose transportation and glucose oxidation, which directly affects the pancreas and its insulin regulation (without actually increasing insulin levels). A watered-down, solvent-like extract, specifically, promotes glycogenesis, which is the process by which excess sugar is transferred from the bloodstream to the muscles and liver where it can be more properly utilized and cleared out of the body.
Note: Even the high fiber levels of elderberries are a tremendous aid in the reduction of blood sugar.
Elderberry and Skin Care
The bioflavonoids, antioxidants, and high levels of vitamin A in the elderberry nurture skin health. Its vitamin A content makes it particularly effective as a skin care agent. Vitamin A’s compounds—unlike other vitamins—are readily-available in their activated form and conversion, depending on the source, is not always necessary for absorption. Beta-carotene—and every other carotenoid—is the vitamin A form sourced directly through plant foods and is the most potent in terms of skin health. Within the body, beta-carotene is easily converted to retinol, which protects the skin’s cells and promotes healing. The less fruits and vegetables in one’s diet, the more likely the skin will suffer from premature aging, increased sensitivity to the sun, loss in elasticity, a dull tone, and chronic and hormonal acne.
As for elderberries themselves, a reversal in perceived skin aging—wrinkles and age spots—has been noted in several studies. This seems to indicate that the consumption of edible elderberry products could improve the tone and elasticity of skin and somewhat prevent the speed at which it naturally degrades and ages, due to its antioxidative and circulation-promoting properties.
Elderberry as a Cough Syrup
“The less the coughing allowed, the less the inclination to cough. Where this effort cannot succeed, then some resort must be had to palliatives in the form of remedial agents. When this shall be done, let the mildest palliatives be used which are able to give relief, and as few opiates as possible. If a homeopathic medicine will operate, so much the better.” —Health, or, How to Live, 298
Most natural respiratory medicines—namely cough syrups and cough suppressants—contain elderberry. This is because the elderberry flowers are antispasmodic—they relax bronchial spasms, which significantly reduces the sufferer’s inclination to cough. Elderberry’s anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties also have a soothing and shrinking effect on the mucous membranes and surrounding blood vessels. This relieves nasal congestion and encourages the expectoration (productive coughing-up) of phlegm.
Bronchitis, pneumonia, and even asthma are all alleviated through the use of elderberry cough syrup.
Note: The elderberry flowers are the gentlest and safest part of the plant. All other portions contain cyanide-producing compounds and should not be consumed without proper cooking. If preparing a DIY elderberry cough syrup for children above the age of 4, please be mindful of this and become informed on proper techniques for food and medicinal preparations. (See further warnings below.)
Elderberry and Cancer
The anthocyanins contained within elderberry extracts have proven to be a potential treatment against cancer, as well as a cancer preventative. The term chemopreventive is used when discussing the possibilities of elderberry as a natural treatment option because laboratory studies have revealed elderberry contains chemopreventive compounds that slow and even reverse cancer formation. More studies are needed to better understand its efficacy, but the ever-present censorship of sincere scientific research will no doubt be an obstacle in the future for those who seek a more natural approach to cancer treatment and prevention.
Safe, edible elderberry species should not be confused with the American Elder, Elderflower, or Dwarf Elder. (Be mindful that “Elderflower” is the name of a species and “elderflowers” are simply the flowers on the elderberry bush.)
While the flowers are safe in any form, only ripe, cooked berries (specifically of the Sambucus family) are safe for consumption. This is because raw elderberries contain traces of cyanide. Mild toxicity symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Commercially prepared dried berries and elderberry powders must meet safety standards and very rarely cause adverse reactions when ingested at the recommended dosages. Still, take consideration of the fact that few elder species are edible and, therefore, elderberry products should only be purchased from licensed and reputable stores/brands.
Even though elderberry has recently been removed from the honeysuckle family and has been recategorized as a member of Adoxaceae, it may still be relevant to be wary if one is allergic to any species of honeysuckle, as the elderberry plant still shares many of their traits.
Elderberry in any form (even tea and juice) should not be ingested if pregnant or breastfeeding because very young children are particularly sensitive in a negative way to it potent properties, much like they are to honey until they reach a certain age.
In addition, elderberry’s natural diuretic capabilities can cause a serious dehydrating effect upon the organs, which is why the more condensed and potent extracts and medicinal syrups should not be taken for more than 5 consecutive days.
Lastly, certain medications are either counteractive or become toxic when elderberry products are also introduced into the system. These medications include diuretics, laxatives, chemotherapy, diabetes medication, theophylline (or TheoDur), any immune-suppressing drugs, as well as topical and internal steroids (specifically prednisone), and autoimmune disease medications.
Elderberry has a long history of natural medicinal use as both a disease preventative and a “cure all” for various ailments and conditions. It is antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidal, and anti-inflammatory, which truly makes it one of the most versatile medicinal plants on the planet. Though caution should be used depending on preexisting conditions, age, or preparatory methods, elderberry is safe and effective for the treatment of colds, flus, infections, respiratory conditions, skin care, and as an immune-boosting detoxifier.