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Benefits of Elderberry – A Traditional Herbal Remedy for Immune Health

Benefits of Elderberry – A Traditional Herbal Remedy for Immune Health

Long before the emergence of modern medicine, with its repertoire of antimicrobial drugs and vaccines, traditional cultures relied on botanicals to support immune health and combat seasonal threats. Elderberry is a botanical long celebrated for its immune-supportive effects and its ability to help promote a healthy microbial balance in the body.

Read on to learn the fascinating benefits of elderberry, how it can effectively support your immune system, and why you needn’t worry about elderberry triggering a response in the body called a “cytokine storm.”

What is Elderberry?

Elderberries come from the European Elder tree (Sambucus nigra), a flowering deciduous tree native to Europe, but can also be found in Asia, North Africa, and North America. The tree-like shrub blooms with large clusters of white flowers in summer, which develop into shiny, dark purple berries by early fall.

The berries, bark, and leaves of the plant have long been used in traditional herbal medicine as tonics to support immune health, respiratory function, and to combat seasonal immune challenges. Native Americans utilized Elder for feverish conditions. In the Middle Ages, Europeans used the plant to address gastrointestinal complaints, chills, throat and lung irritations, and to enhance immune resilience.

While elder bark and leaves offer potent immune-supportive properties, they are incredibly bitter and thus unpalatable to most people. The berries, on the other hand, have a pleasant flavor and have historically been incorporated into wine or syrup. Elderberries are rich in anthocyanins, a class of brightly-pigmented flavonoids that impart the fruit with its signature deep purple hue and are responsible for its many health benefits.

The Many Health Benefits of Elderberry

Modern-day research validates the traditional uses of elderberry, demonstrating the multiple pathways through which this colorful little berry works to support immunity and respiratory health.

Elderberry has been found to both promote cellular defenses against foreign invaders and help impede their replication within the cell.[1] These effects are attributed to elderberry anthocyanins, which can block the spike proteins on the invader’s membranes that are needed to gain entry into host cells. These properties of elderberry explain why it has been found to support upper respiratory tract health and function in the face of these health challenges.[2]

Elderberry may also promote an efficient immune response to seasonal invaders by coordinating the release of cytokines, small proteins secreted by immune cells that are a vital part of the immune response to harmful bugs. Furthermore, it helps support a balanced inflammatory response to seasonal invaders, promoting productive immune function while dampening excessive, unproductive irritations.[3],[4]

Between 70 and 80 percent of the human immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract, making gut health absolutely crucial for optimal immune function.[5] The anthocyanins in elderberry promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and may thus indirectly support immune health through this mechanism.[6]

Finally, preclinical studies reveal that elderberry supports healthy blood sugar balance, which, when out of control, is a risk factor for becoming susceptible to common seasonal health challenges.[7],[8],[9] By improving these risk factors, elderberry may create an internal terrain in the body that is less hospitable to threatening bugs.

Antioxidant Potential and Elderberry

Seasonal bugs  can alter the redox status of host cells, meaning they can increase the amount of circulating free radicals while depleting the body’s antioxidant stores required to neutralize them.[10] This imbalance of oxidants to antioxidants can worsen a dysfunctional inflammatory response called a “cytokine storm.” A cytokine storm is an overproduction of immune cells and their activating products, cytokines, released in the end stages of severe health ailments.[11] A cytokine storm can cause serious cell and tissue damage, harming the entire body.

Elderberry anthocyanins have been found to improve oxidant and antioxidant equilibrium by bolstering cellular antioxidant levels.[12]

As a result, elderberry may also promote a more balanced immune response in the face of communicable threats.

Should I Be Worried About Elderberry Causing a Cytokine Storm?

Recently, concerns have been surfacing in the health and wellness community regarding the potential for elderberry to prompt a “cytokine storm.” However, as we discussed above, a cytokine storm is a profound inflammatory response activated in the end stages of severe health ailments that can severely sicken patients – it is NOT something that can be triggered by an herb or dietary supplement. The idea that elderberry, or any other vitamin, mineral, or herb, can trigger a cytokine storm demonstrates a misunderstanding of the underlying biology behind this phenomenon. Not only is elderberry a safe, natural botanical, it can also help modulate the immune system, helping to promote optimal immune responses and balance unproductive inflammatory responses.

Liposomes Increase the Bioavailability of Elderberry Anthocyanins

Anthocyanins, including those found in elderberry, typically have limited bioavailability in the body. In recent years, scientists have begun to explore the potential merits of delivering anthocyanins in liposomal delivery systems, as opposed to conventional oral formulations. Excitingly, emerging research indicates that liposomal delivery systems may enhance the bioavailability of cyanidin-3-O-glucoside, the dominant anthocyanin in elderberry extract.[14],[15],[16]

Elderberry is truly a wonder plant when it comes to supporting the immune system and enhancing internal defenses against unwanted bugs. A plethora of research indicates that elderberry is a dynamic and foundational botanical that may fortify your immune system and provide a natural defense against seasonal health challenges.

[1] Torabian G, et al. Anti-influenza activity of elderberry (Sambucus nigra). J Funct Foods. 2019; 54: 353-360.

[2] Hawkins J, et al. Black elderberry (Sambucus Nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials. Complement Ther Med. 2019; 42: 361-365.

[3] Ho GTT, et al. Elderberry and elderflower extracts, phenolic compounds, and metabolites and their effect on complement, RAW 264.7 macrophages, and dendritic cells. Int J Mol Sci. 2017; 18(3): online.

[4] Simonyi A, et al. Inhibition of microglial activation by elderberry extracts and its phenolic components. Life Sci. 2015; 128: 30-38.

[5] Vighi G, et al. Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clin Exp Immunol. 2008; 153(Suppl 1): 3-6.

[6] Lavefve L, et al. Berry polyphenols metabolism and impact on human gut microbiota and health. Food Funct. 2020; 1.

[7] Salvador AC, et al. Effect of elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) extract supplementation in STZ-induced diabetic rats fed with a high-fat diet. Int J Mol Sci. 2017; 18(1): 13.

[8] AACE Position statement: Coronavirus (COVID-19) and people with diabetes. AACE website. Updated 18 March 2020. Accessed 7 April 2020.

[9] Zielinska-Wasielica J, et al. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) fruit extract alleviates oxidative stress, insulin resistance, and inflammation in hypertrophied 3T3-L1 adipocytes and activated RAW 264.7 Macrophages. Foods. 2019; 8(8): 326.

[10] Khomich OA, et al. Redox biology of respiratory viral infections. Viruses. 2018; 10(8): 392.

[11] Tisoncik JR, et al. Into the eye of the cytokine storm. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2012; 76(1): 16-32.

[12] Strugala P, et al. A comprehensive study on the biological activity of elderberry extract and cyanidin 3-O-glucoside and their interactions with membranes and human serum albumin. Molecules. 2018; 23(10): 2566.

[13] Torabian G, et al. Anti-influenza activity of elderberry (Sambucus nigra). J Funct Foods. 2019; 54: 353-360.

[14] Bryla A, et al. Encapsulation of elderberry extract into phospholipid nanoparticles. J Food Eng. 2015; 167(Part B): 189-195.

[15] Chen BH and Inbaraj BS. Nanoemulsion and nanoliposome based strategies for improving anthocyanin stability and bioavailability. Nutrients. 2019; 11(5): 1052.

[16] Strugala P, et al. A comprehensive study on the biological activity of elderberry extract and cyanidin 3-O-glucoside and their interactions with membranes and human serum albumin. Molecules. 2018; 23(10): 2566.

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