Elderberry extract: Hot cure for the cold or hype?

Elderberry extract: the ancient yet hot commodity around combating cold and flu symptoms. With a plethora of nutrients this little berry packs vitamin A, C, iron, folate, potassium, calcium, flavonoids, and fiber. As with many fruits and veggies though, they can also contain some less than desireable chemicals as well, in this case trace cyanide (mostly in their raw form).  

The extract is marketed to be anti-viral, help with bone density, shorten colds and upper respiratory infections, reduce cold and flu symptoms, help with skin blemishes and aging, as well as decrease pain and inflammation. It’s a song and dance we have witnessed many times before as many of the all natural supplements like this present a bit of a conundrum. There’s old stories and personal anecdotes that indicate they can' be helpful, but little actual scientific evidence that isn’t funded by commercial sources looking to sell you something. I think the best we can do is to present an even picture of the literature and then decide for ourselves. 

In the case of Elderberry, much of the beneficial claims are derived from the nutritional property of the berries themselves. Vitamin A is great for your skin. Vitamin C is said to help fight infections. Calcium, iron, and potassium help keep bones healthy. Iron helps create new red blood cells. Potassium is beneficial for heart health. Fiber promotes a healthy digestive system and flavonoids are little antioxidant powerhouses helping us fight disease.

A study done in 2014 published to the NCBI looked at the effects of elderberry supplementation in travelers. The study concluded that elderberry had a general effect of reducing the duration of the cold, but it should also be noted that the participant group taking the supplement had a higher percentage of non-smokers who had also received a flu shot. The trial was funded by an elderberry supplement company which lends to the question of whether the supplement was actually as effective as concluded or if the non-placebo group was just healthier overall.

In 2000, a study completed in Norway, also funded by an elderberry supplement company found the extract to reduce colds by up to four days. The study provided other medications and nasal sprays to participants who felt the extract (or placebo) was not effective. Overall a great sign, but…. there were less than 100 participants and no lifestyle information listed.  

Naturex, another supplement company, hosted a study on astragalus root and elderberry fruit extract with more of an emphasis on the science. They looked at two strains of bacteria, E-coli and lactobacillus acidophilus, and the effect of both supplements on each strain within dendritic cells. Dendritic cells are housed in our immune systems and function to process antigens and provide them to other cells. Looking to suppress the negative effects of the E-coli bacteria, both supplements had a slight effect. In this case, the study was done in vitro so while the results are interesting, its hard to understand if they’d translate to live animals.

Berrypharma hosted another study that looked at a variety of human respiratory infections in a lab and compared the results of no extract, 5%, 10%, 15%, and 20% extract. The 10% extract reduced the bacterial growth by 70%. The 20% extract brought the bacterial count down to 1% of what was originally measured. The study also sneaks in that all samples of bacteria were previously treated with antibiotics which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it unlikely that you’re taking antibiotics all the time (at least you shouldn’t be). It’d be interested to know if this pre-treatment was necessary for the elderberry to work… but alas, we don’t know the answer.

While the data seems to point toward there being a modest benefit to elderberry extract in boosting immunity, the overall evidence is a bit lacking compared to some of the better supplements out there. Personally, I’ve tried taking a combination of elderberry and astragalus every day this winter to see if there would be any benefits. I’ve managed to avoid 2 colds that my wife caught (meaning I was likely exposed) but with no controls and a small sample size, it could just be luck. As for the other benefits of increased vitamins, etc you’re likely better off just eating real fruits like blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and the like as they all have incredible nutrient profiles that will benefit anyone who incorporates them into their diet. We should be ingesting a colorful assortment of fruits and veggies to provide ourselves these nutrients. When food is treated as fuel it also functions as preventative medicine. Supplementation is fine but should not be necessary if we have variance in our nutrition.