Caroline Wallace combines two of her passions—science writing and complementary and alternative medicine, along with her knowledge of DoTERRA Essential Oils.
Caroline Wallace combines two of her passions—science writing and complementary and alternative medicine, along with her knowledge of DoTERRA Essential Oils.

Sambucus nigra (Elderberry) Extracts

Elderberry extract is the first natural compound that I will discuss. Both elderberry syrup and elderberry gummy products are commonly found in the supplement/ vitamin section of stores. During cold and flu season, people take elderberry products to “boost their immune system” to reduce the chance of catching any “crud” that is going around.

Berries from the Sambucus nigra plant are most commonly used. These large shrubs are native to most of Europe and North America, and they produce multiple clusters of tiny black berries. The raw berries, leaves, and stems are poisonous! They contain a compound called cyanogenic glycosides, which is converted into the toxin called cyanide when it is consumed. The cyanogenic glycosides are destroyed when the elderberries are cooked and the beneficial compounds are retained. Only cooked elderberries should be eaten!

The main active compounds in elderberries are antioxidant compounds: quercetins, anthocyanins, and flavanols.

According to WebMD, “Some people take elderberry by mouth for the common cold, flu (influenza), and many other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.”

For this scientific overview of Sambucus nigra, I used the PubMed search term “Elderberry Extract“. This search term returned 361 results, which ranged from in vitro studies (in a culture dish in a lab), in vivo studies (in a living animal), and clinical trials (in humans).  While this may seem like a lot of studies, very few studies actually looked at the function of Sambucus nigra extract in humans/human cells.

Use of Sambucus nigra for colds and influenza

The majority of peer-reviewed research studies have investigated the anti-viral properties of elderberry extract from the Sambucus nigra berries. A randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial of 312 economy class passengers traveling overseas from Australia looked at the effectiveness of elderberry extract against colds. This type of clinical trial is one of the most rigorous and least likely to be accidentally skewed by bias or the placebo effect. The clinical trial participants carefully recorded any respiratory symptoms and the data was analyzed used standard scoring systems. There was no significant difference in the number of cold episodes, meaning that the elderberry extract did not make a difference in catching a cold on the airplane. However, the group of people who consumed the elderberry extract did have significantly shorter “cold episode days”, and less severe symptoms, than the people in the placebo group. The conclusion is that the people who consumed elderberry extract got better more quickly and were less sick.

Other clinical studies (1995 and 2004) have looked at the efficacy of elderberry extract in influenza. Both studies came to the conclusion that consuming elderberry extract relieved symptoms earlier (an average of 4 days) and the symptoms were less severe. In the case of influenza, this means that the use of additional medicine was less required when elderberry extract products were consumed.  

While those studies revealed that consuming elderberry extract products during a cold or influenza likely decrease the length of time that a person is sick, they did not explain HOW the extract is working. This is one of the challenges of natural compounds. The HOW is often unclear.

A 2019 article published by the University of Sydney in Australia provides some insight into how elderberry extract works in the body. Elderberry extract is effective against influenza infection due to multiple reasons. The compounds within elderberry extract are actually an antiviral agent against the influenza virus. The compounds block the viral proteins that allow the virus particles to attach and then enter into host (human) cells. Also, viral replication is slowed. The other beneficial component is the immune boosting effect: elderberry promotes the release of cytokines which stimulate the immune system to fight the virus.

An older article from 2001 also showed that Sambucol (a commercially available product) altered cytokine production. Human cells from healthy donors were used for this study. The production of inflammatory cytokines (IL-1 beta, TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-8) were increased in the cells from all of the donors. The mechanism of how elderberry extract does this is not yet known.

It is important to note that not all viruses are the same. Therefore, even though consuming elderberry extract appears to be effective for influenza and colds, it may not be effective for other viruses.

Potential antibacterial properties of Sambucus nigra

One study has looked at the antimicrobial activity of standardized elderberry liquid extract. That research group observed antimicrobial activity against both Gram-positive bacteria of Streptococcus pyogenes and group C and G Streptococci, and the Gram-negative bacterium Branhamella catarrhalis in liquid cultures. However, it does not appear like the antibacterial properties have been further studied.

Final Thoughts

Elderberry extract does appear to shorten the duration and severity of colds and influenza. While the number of clinical trials on this topic is limited, the studies that have been conducted have provided compelling data. While the exact biological mechanism is not yet clear, the extract from Sambucus nigra berries seem to impair the virus while amplifying the anti-viral immune response via more cytokine production.

Since there are so many elderberry products on the market, it is hard to know the purity and potency of what you are getting. It is also possible to make your own elderberry syrup at home!

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Disclaimer: The content of this blog, Essentially Science, is for general information only. This blog is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Any questions regarding your own health and the supplements that you use should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider. Health-related information changes frequently and therefore information contained in this blog may be outdated, incomplete or incorrect. Statements made about products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

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