Discussing elderberry: what it is and what do studies say about its effectiveness in preventing and treating cold and flu

The newest issue (January 2021) of Today’s Dietitian magazine arrived in the mail recently and one of the articles went over elderberry. Elderberry is a natural remedy that has been suggested to help prevent and treat cold and flu. With flu season here and COVID-19, many people are looking into this solution, so it’s been a hot topic!

One thing I particularly appreciate about the article is that it reviewed published studies on elderberry, as do many articles published by Today’s Dietitian. As you know, there is a ton of information on nutrition, some that are evidence-based and others that make you wonder if it’s too good to be (if it does, then it probably is too good to be true). Knowing who and what to trust can be challenging. It’s important to find credible sources and as a clinician, I’m committed to providing information that’s based on science, not fads or quackery. If you have questions on this, send me a message.

In this post, I want to share the key highlights from the article and help you understand more about elderberry. I will be referencing Today’s Dietitian’s article in magazine Vol. 23 No. 1, “Elderberry: Is it really efficacious in the prevention and treatment of the cold, flu, and COVID-19?”

What is elderberry?

Elderberry is “the dark purple berry of the European or black elder tree. It grows in warm areas of Europe, North America, Asia, and North America.”

What highlighted nutrients does it contain?

– Phenolic compounds, particularly anthocyanins that give the berry its dark blue/purple color, similar to blueberries and blackberries
– Flavonoids such as quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulating effects

Takeaway

– “There have been several small, company-funded clinical studies that have suggested elderberry may reduce the symptoms and shorten the duration of the cold and flu, but a study not company funded didn’t show benefit.”
– In September 2020, a large study evaluated if elderberry extract decreases severity and duration of the flu. The results showed no difference in severity or duration of symptoms between elderberry and placebo.
– Elderberry has also been suggested to help improve cardiovascular disease (CVD) biomarkers, however there is a lack of evidence to support this claim.
– There seems to be uncertainty of the level of compound needed to determine elderberry’s efficacy due to the inconsistent amount of extract used in several of the small, company-funded studies.
– “Currently, there are no published studies that have evaluated the use of elderberry in the treatment of COVID-19.” – What this translates to is, it’s not safe to take elderberry supplements for COVID-19 without fact-checking and checking with a provider. Elderberry may actually harmful to the those with COVID-19 due to the immunological actions of elderberry, one of which causes the release of cytokines and studies have suggested a link between increased cytokines and acute respiratory distress in COVID-19 patients.
There is inconsistent researching findings on the efficacy of elderberry to prevent and treat colds and flu.
– Bottom line: There is no magic bullet and no diet or supplement can replace a healthy diet consisting of whole foods with natural antioxidants, immune-stimulating vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.