Fortune Well January 31, 2024
Elderberry has been celebrated as an immune-boosting super berry for thousands of years. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation wildly exaggerated the powers of this fruit. So much so that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a statement debunking the idea that this berry could combat the virus.
Now, it’s time to separate fact from fiction when it comes to elderberry benefits. What are the real health benefits of the dark purple berry, and are they really an immunity hero? Fortune asked a couple of experts to set the record straight on those elderberry syrups, teas, jams and other supplements you see on supermarket shelves.
Before we dive into elderberry benefits, an important PSA: This fruit should not be eaten off the vine. “Raw elderberries, as well as the leaves and stems, are toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health,” says dietitian Kate Ingram, MPH, RDN. The berries must be cooked before you consume them, and thus, most folks should consider buying premade elderberry products rather than DIYing jams or gummies.
As of right now, the research on this berry is still in its infancy. And even though this humble berry has thousands of anecdotal research to support it, scientific evidence is still lacking.
Elderberry has been used to remedy colds, congestion, and flus for thousands of years. And today, some Indigenous Americans still use the berry for food, medicines, and other purposes (like dye for clothing and game pieces).
According to Ingram, scientific research has yet to confirm the long and storied history of this berry. “Although it is often touted to reduce flu symptoms and upper respiratory infections, research is mixed. Some studies have shown it to be effective, but a recent trial found no impact on severity or duration of flu. What’s more, there is no evidence that elderberry prevents cold or flu infections. Hopefully, in the future, more clinical research can be done to determine the true health benefits of these berries, including their impact on the respiratory system.
There is no evidence to suggest that elderberry supplements or other products can prevent or “cure” COVID-19. “Despite what some companies have stated to the public, there are no published studies that have evaluated elderberry as a treatment for Covid-19 or its symptoms,” says Ashleigh Kidd, a dietitian at F45 Training. “Elderberry can even be harmful to those with the COVID-19 virus, potentially causing acute respiratory distress. So it’s advised if you test positive for the virus, do not consume elderberry in any form.”
“Elderberry does contain antioxidants that can, in general, reduce the free radicals and oxidative stress that lead to chronic disease,” Ingram says. Free radicals are unstable electrons that contribute to an array of health conditions, such as cancer, asthma, diabetes, dementia, and more. Nonetheless, more research on elderberries needs to be conducted before we can definitely link this berry with disease prevention.
Elderberries may also improve your cardiovascular health. “While some research in animals on elderberries and heart health has been promising, no real connection has been confirmed,” says Ingram. “However, elderberries are high in antioxidants, which are beneficial to heart health, as is following a more plant-based diet. Therefore, elderberries as part of an overall healthful eating plan may be useful.”
“There is no standard recommended dose for elderberry,” says Ingram. “If you are consuming it as a food, it is unlikely that you would ingest too much. If you are taking it as a supplement, follow the dosing instructions provided.” She adds that those who are taking elderberry to boost their immune system might also consider taking vitamin C, zinc, or a combination of all three.
Of course, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t review supplements before they are sold to consumers, being discerning in the supplement aisle will serve you well. “If you do opt for supplements, choose ones from reputable companies. Often you can find options certified by a third-party organization like the Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG), NSF (previously known as the National Sanitation Foundation), or USP (United States Pharmacopeia),” Ingram says.
Pregnant and breastfeeding people should avoid elderberry entirely, according to the NIH. As noted earlier, those who have tested positive for COVID-19 should also refrain from taking elderberry until we know more about its properties. Everyone has their own unique medical history, so it’s critical to talk to your primary care physician before adding supplements to your routine.
While elderberry has been used in pies, jams, teas, and medicine for thousands of years, it does not yet have the scientific community behind it. Instead, a routine that prioritizes sleep, exercise, and a nutrient-rich diet of fruits and veggies, lean protein, healthy fats, and whole grains gives you the best shot at proper immune function, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That said, those who are not pregnant or currently suffering from COVID-19 may enjoy adding elderberry to their diets. Just remember: “[T]here is no ‘remedy’ that can replace eating a balanced and healthful diet rich in whole foods,” says Kidd.
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