What Health Experts Want You to Know About Elderberry Syrup

Erica Sweeney
·6 min read
Photo credit: Anastasiia Stiahailo
Photo credit: Anastasiia Stiahailo

From Good Housekeeping

Over the past year, the body's immune system has never been more important — and never more in the spotlight, as the novel coronavirus pandemic derailed 2020 for nearly everyone on Earth. Elderberry syrup has repeatedly surfaced in this spotlight, as the centuries-old remedy has actually been shown to offer immunity support. “Elderberry has gotten a lot of attention this year due to its folk-and-natural medicine use as an herb that helps support immune function,” says Amy Rothenberg, ND, a licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts. “This is an herb that has been known about and used for millennia, and it has been studied in our modern times quite a bit.”

If you haven't heard of elderberries just yet, you should know upfront — no single supplement or syrup can specifically strengthen your body's immune system on its own overnight, as experts at California's Cedars-Sinai explain. Elderberry syrup isn't a magic elixir that can prevent you from getting sick. But working it into your regular routine — combined with a healthy lifestyle, diet and exercise, as well as good sleep habits — could pack in immunity benefits, Rothenberg explains.

Your immune system isn't the only function that could benefit from elderberry syrup's holistic health boost, either. What exactly is this natural supplement, you might wonder? Is it safe, and how much should you consume? Good Housekeeping asked experts to answer these important questions, plus tips on preparing it at home to avoid any side effects.

How is elderberry syrup made?

Elderberries come from a shrub or small tree known as Sambucus nigra that’s native to Europe, Africa and Asia. “The elderberry tree produces berries in small dark blue to black clusters,” Rothenberg says. “Different parts of elderberry have been used over time for both culinary and healing purposes.”

On its own, the tree is known to be highly toxic — which is why preparing and heating the right parts of the plant is essential, and often left to experts. The syrup isn't solely an extract all on its own, explains Lise Alschuler, ND, a clinical medicine professor at the University of Arizona's Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. Usually, it's made from a base of:

  • A concentrated juice harvested from fresh berries

  • Cane sugar or fructose as a sweetener

  • Lemon juice or glycerin as well as other preserves

“Traditionally, elderberry has been combined with other berries and consumed as a beverage, either tea, juice or wine,” Alschuler explains.

The easiest way to add elderberry syrup into your routine will likely be picking up supplements available in health-focused retail stores and online. Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements, including elderberry syrup. Rothenberg suggests buying organic products, which contain lower herbicide and pesticide levels, and products lower in sugar. Elderberry syrup is known to contain added sugar, which can derail your diet and throw off your health in other ways if you're not careful.

You should discuss adding elderberry syrup or any other supplement into your dietary routine with your primary healthcare provider. Long-term exposure to elderberry syrup isn't recommended for some groups, outlined in the guide below.

What are the health benefits associated with elderberry syrup?

Elderberries are rich in nutrients that support the immune system. They’re high in vitamin C, which Rothenberg says plays a key role in many systems of the body, including a balanced immune function, a healthy cardiovascular system and clear skin. Plus, elderberries are loaded with vitamin A, which is shown to regulate immune response, and flavonoids, a chemical found in plants, including anthocyanins, which give them their signature dark purple color. These antioxidants offer immune and anti-inflammatory benefits.

In addition to any immunity properties, elderberries aid digestion due to their high fiber count. Researchers have shown a strong connection between the gut and the immune system over time, as a certain diet can help keep your immunity in check as well.

A 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients found that elderberry supplements reduced the duration and severity of colds in air travelers. Other research has shown elderberry extract can help fight pathogenic bacteria and the flu virus. Elderberry may also lower cholesterol, Alschuler adds. “There are quite a number of studies that have found elderberry to reduce symptoms caused by flu and cold infections,” she says. “The use of elderberry can shorten the duration of upper respiratory tract infections from common cold viruses.”

Most often, though, proponents of elderberry syrup cite immunity support and protection against cold and flu. These illnesses are more common in the winter and early spring, which is why interest in the natural supplement peaks right now. “During the winter months and in times of high exposure to viral infections, such as school environments or long airplane travel, elderberry syrup may provide some protective effects,” Alschuler adds.

Can you take elderberry syrup daily?

Elderberry can be packed into many forms — syrups, capsules, lozenges and gummies. Taking elderberry supplements in any of these forms is “a gentle way to stimulate immune resilience, to help with blood sugar regulation and to help with cardiovascular health,” Rothenberg says.

About a teaspoon a day of elderberry syrup is enough to start to feel benefits alongside your healthy diet routine, Alschuler explains. “Like anything good, more is not necessarily better,” Rothenberg adds, saying it’s best to follow each product’s dosing guidelines.

Who should not take elderberry supplements?

Raw elderberries are toxic and should be avoided, but Alschuler says elderberry syrup and supplements are generally safe—though it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before trying supplements, just to be certain.

Some groups should avoid elderberry syrup altogether. Alschuler says if you’re allergic to grass pollen, you may also be allergic to elderberries. Pregnant women shouldn’t take it without talking to their health care provider. And elderberry isn’t recommended for people taking diabetes medications, diuretics, corticosteroids, laxatives, the asthma drug theophylline, and those undergoing chemotherapy, Rothenberg adds.

Could elderberry syrup help protect you from COVID-19?

Alschuler says early research shows elderberry may prevent coronaviruses from infecting cells. But the 2020 Autoimmunity Reviews white paper doesn't include data that specifically considers SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. “Thus, we do not know yet if elderberry can lower the risk and severity of COVID-19 infection—there is no human data confirming this,” she explains.

If you're already sick and have developed the disease, however, you shouldn't be starting a new elderberry syrup routine anytime soon. In severe coronavirus cases, excess proteins called cytokines are sometimes released, causing the immune system to overreact. It’s believed elderberry could aggravate this cytokine storm. It's a good idea to stop taking elderberry if you test positive for the virus or develop signs of infection, and speak about the supplement with a healthcare provider when you seek treatment.

But most naturopathic doctors would recommend elderberry in an immune-supporting protocol, Rothenberg adds. It should accompany (and not replace!) getting enough sleep, managing stress, exercising daily and eating a balanced anti-inflammatory diet, along with supplements including zinc and vitamin D. And of course, it certainly doesn't replace the need for social distancing and masks whenever you're out in public.

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