SLO Life Magazine: Elderberry Unwrapped

Everything there is to know about the latest hero in natural medicine.

Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of SLO Life Magazine.

Elderberry entered the realm of herbal medicine perhaps as long ago as 370 BCE when Hippocrates dubbed it the “medicine chest” because of its versatility as a medicinal treatment. Throughout history, elderberry made its mark on folk and herbal medicine across cultures including the Egyptians, Irish and Native Americans.

Eventually, elderberry blossomed its way into popular culture for both its notable power and its wretched scent. Decaying elderflowers give off an unpleasant sulfuric scent, so much so that Shakespeare dubbed it the “stinking elder.” The comedic cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail even used it as an insult in the well-known line, “Your father smelt of elderberries.” Fortunately for us, elderberry’s reputation as a natural cold-curing powerhouse outweighed its downfall as a stinking shrub best left for use as a fly deterrent when horseback riding.

More recent cultural references draw on the berry’s reputation as an herbal cure-all and therefore, a source of strength, as the chosen lumber for Harry Potter’s most powerful Elder Wand. Though undoubtedly, elderberry’s modern reputation is similar to the one it had hundreds of years ago—as a holistic way to help the body fight sickness.

Promoted as an all-natural immune boosting, congestion clearing, viral victor, elderberry is lauded as nature’s miracle. Claims of a natural alternative to drugstore cough medicine are enticing for many seeking natural cures to common ailments. Though the validity of these claims is often met with a healthy dose of skepticism, and rightly so. What we take to relieve our colds typically consists of a medley of medicines far removed from the natural environment. Can this one berry be responsible for shortening colds and providing effective natural relief to rival our tried and true drug store cold medicines? With curiosity at its peak, I began an investigation into the identity of this wonder berry and the truth behind its cold-curing powers.

#1 Little Black Berry

American elderberry, a species relative of the European elder, Sambucus nigra, grows to a towering ten to twelve feet in height, and in some cases, as large as thirty feet. Vibrant emerald leaves fill the bulk of the elderberry push while petite ivory flowers bloom readily on budding green stems. As the stems darken to a deep, almost blood red, blossoms give way to berries hanging in clusters. Pale green in their infancy, they mature into the deep blue-black berries commonly known as elderberries.

Though temptation may suggest eating the berries directly off the plant, it is important to note the toxicity of the seeds, stems, leaves and roots. Containing a compound called glycoside that produces cyanide in the body, ingesting these parts of the plant, including unripe berries, may cause unfavorable side effects such as nausea or vomiting. While not fatal, it is wise to avoid these parts of the plant. Cooking the ripened berries eliminates all traces of this compound rendering it safe for use, as in done in the treatment process for elderberry supplements.

#2 Antioxidant Powerhouse

With the hue of a blackberry and the shape of a blueberry it may be easy to mistake this powerhouse plant for just another berry. But beneath elderberry’s rich purple skin lies a bed of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

A report published by Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plant Products found that when matched against other berries of comparable size, elderberry proved to be a notably high source of iron, calcium, and Vitamins A, B6, and C.

Antioxidant effectiveness is derived from a range of compounds, including total phenolics, anthocyacnins, and flavonols. The Purdue report suggests elderberry’s high concentration of these compounds makes it an effective, completely natural source of antioxidants. Elderberry products popularly boast of its wealth of antioxidants, which may protect cells from free radicals, linked to diseases such as heart disease.

#3 Effective Combatant

Recent studies show elderberry to be effective in shortening the length of common colds and even influenza. In a 2016 study, published by MDPI in the journal Nutrients, elderberry capsules were administered to travelers ten days before intercontinental flights and five days after arrival. Travelers who exhibited cold or flu symptoms after the flight contained a combination of passengers taking an elderberry supplement as well as those taking a placebo. The findings, therefore, suggested elderberry had low effectiveness in preventing cold or flu symptoms.

However, the study’s findings did reveal that consuming elderberry while exhibiting common cold symptoms shortened the overall lifetime of the symptoms by an average of two days. Travelers who took the elderberry supplement with cold or flu symptoms were relieved of the symptoms notably faster than those who did not.

Reaching for a jar of elderberry syrup to help fight off your seasonal cold may prove to be a viable alternative to harsher over-the-counter medicines. Studies into the effectiveness of the elderberry itself are relatively new, and more studies need to be conducted to accurately assess effectiveness.

Consumers should also be aware of the propensity for companies with a vested interest in exhibiting elderberry’s effectiveness to fund scientific studies. However, the results of recent studies are promising and generally point toward elderberry as an effective cold medicine that grows right here in our backyard.

#4 Ways to Elderberry

Drugstore shelves are lined with chemical remedies promising weary customers relief from cold symptoms. Medications become more effective and readily available, but not necessarily with overall health in mind. This is where elderberry became so vital—as a way to shorten sickness that leads us back to natura.

The power of elderberry is so pervasive that it sits waiting on drugstore shelves right next to those medications it aims to naturally replace. Syrup, capsules, tablets—the number of elderberry products readily available to consumers can be overwhelming. As with any supplement, it is important to consider what else is used to create the product.

Strengthening the immune system with a natural powerhouse, held together by man-made ingredients and sweetened artificially seems contradictory. Natural, made-with-care elderberry products are available to us here in San Luis Obispo County, made by small business locals like Bliss River Organics. Online boutiques like Etsy abound with homemade elderberry products, from syrups to teas.

For those who are more hands-on, some companies sell do-it-yourself elderberry syrup kits—all ingredients delivered ready to boil and sweeten. That way you know exactly what’s going into your supplements, to assure it remains pure as nature intended. Or, use an online recipe as your guide to creating a customized elderberry supplement. However you get your elderberry, be sure to carefully follow cooking guideline to safely make the most of elderberry’s antioxidant powers.

Final Word

Consuming elderberry in any of its safely processed forms will be beneficial to your health. Though its grandiose claims of preventing all illness may be unfounded, there is no doubt elderberry brings a much-needed boost to your immune system. Elderberry may provide relief from seasonal cold and flu symptoms, providing a safe alternative to over-the-counter medicines made with unnatural ingredients.

Note: This article was originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability. Find the online issue here.

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