Does Elderberry Syrup Actually Help Fight Colds?

Here's the sweet spot on this supplement.

March 06, 2020
Elderberry branches and leaves with a shot of elderberry vinegar on white background


Elderberry branches and leaves with a shot of elderberry vinegar on white background

Photo by: JariJ / Getty Images

JariJ / Getty Images

Come annual cold and flu season, there’s a run on products that purport to help ease symptoms and bolster immunity. To a growing population of cold-fighters, elderberry has developed a reputation as a helper for cold and flu symptoms, with devoted fans praising its ability to supposedly shorten the duration and lessen the severity of illness.

In searching online for info, it’s hard to miss glowing articles praising its helpful properties, and this week, I noticed that the shelves of my local supermarket were cleared of all elderberry products.

But does it work?

“Elderberries do contain a wide variety of phytonutrients and have a high antioxidant activity. However, although there is some research — there are still unanswered questions when it comes to elderberry including dosage and efficacy if mixed with other herbs/ingredients. The few studies on humans and animals are not enough to make the assumption that it will fight the flu or a cold,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND Healthy Eating contributor and Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Create-Your-Plate Diabetes Cookbook (American Diabetes Association, 3/17/20).

Amidor looked into available research on the berries. “Only a handful of studies have examined the effects of elderberry and cold/flu in humans, but several animal studies and cell studies are available. One study published in The Israel Medical Association Journal found that one brand of elderberry extract of three tested did potentially help support the immune system. Another study published in The Journal of International Medical Research looked at 60 people with flulike symptoms who were given elderberry syrup or placebo four times a day for 5 days. Those in the elderberry group self-reported their symptom relief an average of 4 days earlier than those taking placebo.”

Anyone interested should first run it by your healthcare provider. Struck with a cold over Christmas and given the green light by my doctor, I picked up a bottle at the local natural market and gave it a try. Not knowing how long my cold’s course would have otherwise run, I can’t say whether or not it helped, but it did pack a very sweet punch, which was too much for me. That sweetness comes from sugars (from my package, 16% of the recommended daily value in each serving), which balance the berries’ naturally tart flavor, but also shelf-stabilize some versions of the supplement. “Consumption of elderberries or supplements is contraindicated for those on antidiabetes medications, morphine, phenobarbital, diuretics and immunoactive drugs,” Amidor says. “There is also a lack of data on how much is too much, and if it is safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children and teens under the age of 18. As such, it is recommended that those populations avoid the supplement.”

Bottom Line: The lack of concrete data on elderberry supplements means that it's not a proven helper and cannot stand in for smart germ-reducing measures like washing your hands. Seek consent for your doctor before trying it, especially for anyone taking other supplements or medications. It's not advised for anyone who is pregnant, breastfeeding or under 18.

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