How elderberries can help you fight the flu

image of elderberries

By Maria Cohut  

Fact checked by Carolyn Robertson

If you have ever eaten ripe
elderberries or made elderberry jam, syrup, or wine, then you will be familiar
with their sharp, tart, yet refreshing taste. According to tradition, these
dark, purple berries can fortify a person’s immune system. New evidence suggests
this is correct — and research explain how.
Sambucus nigra, the black
elder, is a common shrub spread widely across regions of Europe and North America.
Traditionally, people use both
the elder’s flowers and its fruit to make seasonal drinks or jam.
In late spring or early
summer, many people collect elderflowers to make flavorsome cordials, while the
elderberry harvest occurs in late summer or early autumn when the fruit is
The harvesting time is
important because uncooked, unripe elderberries can be toxic. Historically,
individuals have reported cases of elderberry poisoning, which may have been
due to too early harvesting or improper preparation.
For instance, the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded the case of no fewer than 11
people who fell sick after having drunk elderberry juice from the same batch.
The report explains that the
shrub’s “fresh leaves, flowers, bark, young buds, and roots contain a
bitter alkaloid and also a glucoside that, under certain conditions, can
produce hydrocyanic acid,” which is a type of cyanide.
Nevertheless, elderberry
drinks and desserts have remained a familiar culinary staple in many
communities. Moreover, some people believe that elderberries can help fortify a
person’s immune system and guard against disease.

The answer is in the natural

According to a new study that
researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia conducted, elderberries
really do have antiviral properties, and they can fight a virus once an
infection has already occurred.
In a study paper that appears
in the Journal of Functional Foods, the investigators report that substances
present in elderberries can stop an influenza virus from entering and
replicating in human cells.
“What our study has shown
is that the common elderberry has a potent direct antiviral effect against the
flu virus,” says one of the study’s co-authors, Golnoosh Torabian, Ph.D.
“It inhibits the early
stages of an infection by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the
viral attachment and entry into the host cells,” the scientist continues.
In their study, the
researchers examined the effect of commercially farmed elderberries that they
processed into a serum. This the investigators administered to cells at
multiple different stages of the influenza cycle, including before infection
with a flu virus and during infection.
The scientists found that the
phytochemicals — the natural, plant-derived substances that the elderberry
serum contained — had a “mild inhibitory effect” when the flu virus
was just about to infect a cell.
However, once a cell already
contained infection, the same chemicals were significantly effective in
stopping the virus from propagating.
“This observation was
quite surprising and rather significant because blocking the viral cycle at
several stages has a higher chance of inhibiting the viral infection,”
says co-author Peter Valtchev, Ph.D.
Moreover, the researchers
explain that applying the elderberry solution also boosted the cells’ own
reaction against the attacking virus.
“In addition to that, we
identified that the elderberry solution also stimulated the cells to release
certain cytokines, which are chemical messengers that the immune system uses
for communication between different cell types to coordinate a more efficient
response against the invading pathogen.”
-Prof. Fariba Deghani

The researchers explain that
the antiviral properties of elderberries are due to the anthocyanidins — plant
pigments — it contains. According to other research, anthocyanidins also have
an antioxidant effect, meaning that they can protect cells from becoming

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.