What Is Elderberry and Why Is Everyone Trying to Sell It to Me Right Now?

No, it won't shield you from catching COVID-19—but there are a few science-backed health benefits of this antioxidant-rich berry. Here's what you should know before you try it.

You've likely noticed an array of elderberry items lining the “featured products” shelf of your local grocery store lately, and wondered what exactly is this purple stuff and why are they trying so hard to coerce me into buying it? As the world faces a global pandemic, finding ways to boost the immune system is obviously of utmost importance. Elderberry, which comes from the Sambucus tree, boasts a variety of benefits that may potentially help boost the immune system. Though it is not by any means a miracle berry and will not keep you from catching the novel coronavirus—unlike social distancing, proper hand-washing, and taking safety precautions when having items delivered or when going to the grocery store—you will reap some health benefits from elderberry. Here is some information to consider before you consume it, based on the recommendations of a registered dietitian.

What Are the Health Benefits of Elderberry?

In order to learn more about the health benefits of elderberry, we interviewed expert Angel Planells MS, RDN, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. He says that “this supplement packs a lot of punch as it is packed with antioxidants—it's very high in vitamin C, dietary fiber and antioxidants like phenolic acids, flavonols, and anthocyanins.” Elderberry contains flavonoids that may help reduce swelling and fight inflammation. Though elderberry may be a good option for boosting the immune system against the common flu or cold, there is no research to back its ability to protect you from the novel coronavirus.

Most commonly, you can find elderberry in the form of a liquid, syrup, capsule, lozenge, or tincture. Such elderberry products may help with improving the severity and length of time of flu-like symptoms. Planells states that “some studies show benefits like a reduction in fever, muscle aches and nasal congestion.” Additionally, he points out that the leaves and flowers of the plant typically have been used to relieve pain, reduce swelling, decrease inflammation, and act as a diuretic. He cautions that one should not consume unripe or uncooked elderberry as they may be poisonous, and that we should additionally note that processing elderberries into syrups, teas, jams, and juices can reduce their antioxidant activity. So such supplements may have reduced benefits compared to some results seen in laboratory studies.

elderberry benefits
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Are There Any Precautions That Should Be Taken When Consuming Elderberry?

Planells states that “as with all supplements, persons under 18, and those that are pregnant or lactating should be mindful of using any supplements.” He also believes that consuming elderberry for up to five days seems to pose few risks, however, safety for long-term usage is unknown and needs to be further researched. As a safety precaution, those taking prescribed medications should ensure there are no drug-nutrient interactions before ingesting. Additionally, Planells warns that “there are potential interactions with some diuretics, diabetic medications, chemotherapy medications, laxatives, asthma medications such as theophylline, and any drugs that suppress the immune system.” Generally, it is always best to consult your doctor to ensure it is a safe supplement to consume to treat your health concerns.

Better Ways to Stay Healthy, According to a Dietitian

Though elderberry may provide a medley of health benefits, Planells outlines the tried-and-true best ways to stay healthy year-round.

  • Eat well. We should all try to get a wide variety of foods in our daily intake such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, healthful fats, and dairy (if you partake).
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Try to stay physically active.
  • Practice safe social distancing.
  • Make sure your mental health remains well.
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