The Magical Antiviral Properties of Elderberry

Lots of people are talking about Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) being a good thing to take to ward off Covid-19, so what’s it all about?.…Does it work and is it safe?

We always go elderberry picking in the autumn, and it is one of our most favourite family weekend activities. As well as making fond memories, we are also putting in some reserves to keep our immune systems in good order over the coming winter months. Many people have traditionally taken this lovely autumnal hedgerow berry in syrups and teas throughout the winter to help with immunity, and it’s often the first port of call when others first experience symptoms of a virus.

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What’s the science behind it?

Elderberry, known as Sambucus nigra, has been used traditionally to help lessen the impact of viral infections, especially flu. Research has found that it can be a helpful intervention when experiencing both influenzas, A and B. It has also been found to reduce the duration and severity of the common cold.

A meta-analysis published in 2019 also found that it is very helpful at treating upper respiratory symptoms and concludes “these findings present an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.” It has also been described as an effective and economical way to manage influenza.

It is thought that the phytochemicals which are the natural, plant-derived substances in elderberry mildly inhibit the flu virus when it is just about to infect a cell. And if a cell already contains an infection, then the same chemicals are significantly effective in stopping the virus from proliferating. Black elderberry is thus thought to blunt the ‘spikes’ on the outside of viruses and stops them entering cells to reproduce.

Can it be effective against Coronavirus?

But what about its effect on Covid-19, which is a very different type of virus from colds and flu? To be clear, hand washing and social distancing should be the primary intervention to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, and Elderberry should never be seen as a replacement for preventative interventions or medical care for Coronavirus. It should always be viewed as a home remedy that you might take alongside hot honey and lemon and/or zinc and might help you feel a little bit more comfortable whilst your immune system is working to overcome the virus.

Some people have been a little worried about Elderberry and Coronavirus as a 2001 paper suggests elderberry may activate the immune system and inflammatory processes in healthy individuals. And some have concluded from this, that it might possibly pose higher risk for a “cytokine storm”, which is essentially where the body mounts an attack on itself and more damage is created. A cytokine storm sometimes occurs in the advanced stages of infection, such as sepsis or acute respiratory distress syndrome, when there is a significant amount of damage to the body tissues already.

It’s important to know that Elderberry has both pro and anti-inflammatory action, as well as antioxidant activity – so these together should in theory balance out any potential cytokine flurry. More up to date research was published in February 2020 about the broad antiviral use of Elderberry including that of Coronavirus, and this paper states that Elderberry has been “investigated to see whether it would exacerbate or mitigate a cytokine storm, and does not seem to make one worse and might dampen it.”

Another research document published in 2020 included elderberry in its seven recommendations “to rescue the patients and reduce the mortality from COVID-19 infection” with the recommendation that it is most helpful in the early stages of contracting the virus.

The other new research that was published at the end of 2019 was with the Taiwanese version of our Black Elderberry, called Sambucus FormosanaNakai and it was specifically tested against a coronavirus called NL63, with some very promising results. The paper found that the components in Sambucus FormosanaNakai are very similar to those to Sambucus nigra and share “antioxidant, antiradical, antiviral, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory activity”. The study also found that Sambucus significantly reduced “virus yield, plaque formation and virus attachment”. The researchers who conducted this study concluded that: “Like Sambucus nigra, Sambucus FormosanaNakai might process the antiviral features against the broad spectrum of human respiratory coronaviruses, as useful for developing the antiviral agents”.

This new research may be a positive turning point for elderberry, and I am hoping that in a similar vein to honey now being the NHS recommendation for cough, that elderberry may become a more mainstream antiviral treatment going forward.

Who can take It?

I have been in conversation with quite a few biochemists, paediatricians and herbalists to learn more about the safety of elderberry supplements and so far, no one knows a single documented case of elderberry causing any negative effects. There are even food supplements suitable for babies from 3 months as it is such a well-tolerated therapeutic berry.

Are there any risks?

It is however best to avoid taking elderberry during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding a baby under 3 months, as there is no research to support its safety (nor is there any evidence to say it is unsafe either, but we do need to be cautious just in case).

Taking elderberry alongside some medications that decrease the immune system might potentially decrease the effectiveness of medications, so it would be prudent to avoid it if you are taking any of the following:

  • Azathioprine (Imuran)
  • Basiliximab (Simulect)
  • Cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune)
  • Daclizumab (Zenapax)
  • Muromonab-CD3 (OKT3)
  • Orthoclone (OKT3)
  • Mycophenolate (CellCept)
  • Tacrolimus (FK506, Prograf)
  • Sirolimus (Rapamune)
  • Prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone)
  • Corticosteroids (Glucocorticoids)

Can you make it yourself?

In the late autumn elderberries are black and squidgy and ready to pick. To make your own syrup, then simply pop the ripe berries off the stalks with a fork and after washing them and pour them in a saucepan with a little water and let then simmer for about 10 minutes until it makes a lovely juicy mixture. Then sieve out the seeds and add honey and store the sticky mixture in a glass jar in the fridge. Any extra you can freeze in ice cube trays, so you always have some ready for if a virus hits your household. You can also buy ready to go syrups, teas and capsules if you do not have access to elderberries, or you need it at another time of the year.

Whether you want to harvest the elderflowers, or the elderberries, the common elder bush is a must-have for every garden. It’s a doddle to grow. Here are some of the details. And here’s one place you can buy the plants.

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  1. Is it ok to take Sambucol elderberry products as a daily preventative measure during cold/flu season or should you only take them once the cold or flu hits? Thanks

    1. It really depends on age and how concentrate the elderberry is – most people take 1-2 teaspoons a day when they start to feel unwell. I hope that this is helpful.

  2. Hi Lucinda,

    My son has persistent viral wheeze after most colds. I feel like his immune system isn’t very strong as he’s still at nursery. He’s 4 and starts school in September.

    Should I give him elderberry everyday? I would love him not to be sick every other week.

    1. If a child is run down and seems to be catching everything going then it is totally fine to give elderberry daily for a few months – don’t forget enough zinc, Vit D and Vit C too!

  3. Hi Lucinda, I’m going to make some elderberry syrup, thanks for the recipe! How long will it last in fridge please? Thank you