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Episode 18: Elderberry | Declassifying the Benefits and Myths

Posted by Manoj Perumal on

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About this Episode

Elderberry | Declassifying the Benefits and Myths

In this episode of Discover with Dr. Dan | Proactive Health, Dr. Dan examines the elderberry to determine if it truly is a superfood. He uncovers the benefits and nutrients within the plant and discusses how it is used in modern medicine. In olden times, the berry was used in different cultures as a means to support health and to fight inflammation. Tune in to the episode to learn more. 

A History Rich in Lore

The history of elderberries dates back to ancient times with both medicinal and ceremonial uses. Early Pagans believed elderberries were a gift from the gods and traditional witchcraft and wizardry used properties from the elder tree including berries and bark. “So with witchcraft and different cultures where witchcraft is practiced, elderberry and the elder bark is a big deal.” Such properties were added to enhance magical ceremonies for rituals and healing. Elderberry can be found in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, as well as Russia, Canada, and the United States. Traditional uses of this age-old berry include making a tea out of the flower, producing a mellow aroma and a delicately sweet flavor, or making elder wine, which is popular in the northern region of the globe. The elderberry was anciently used medicinally to support immune health and to aid against the cold, flu, infections, and any other inflammatory ailments. Today, however, the elderberry is used in supplements to promote immune and respiratory health through a liquid or powder extract.

Human Trials for Berry Effectiveness

This wonderberry is composed of polyphenols called anthocyanins, which work by stimulating the immune system and causing mild inflammation within the body. As a result, the inflammation releases cytokines which the immune system fights against with macrophages. This cycle strengthens the immune system against infections and other maladies that attack it. Studies of the elderberry have been conducted aiming to either disprove or prove its effectiveness for overall human health and for particular conditions. 

Two studies were completed in 2009 and 2020 that shared similar results between a control group and a group that took an elderberry supplement. Researchers tracked both groups over a specified period of time and found no significant changes in health conditions like colds, flu, etc. Opposingly, many studies have been completed where health benefits in favor of the elderberry were made apparent. For example, in 1995, a study was conducted in Panama to aid in the influenza outbreak. Researchers tracked a control group and a group that took elderberry supplements and found that the effects of influenza were shortened from, “six days in the control group to two days in the elderberry group.” Other studies show similar results for a multitude of inflammatory conditions. Dr. Dan confirms, “When you look at all the literature put together, the papers for and the papers against elderberry, as you’ve seen from our discussion, it’s clear that the science leans in the elderberry direction.”

Setting the Record Straight with Scientific Evidence

The pandemic of COVID-19 stirred the world of health news and accurate information. With this stirring came a lot of jumbled health claims which contradicted that of professionals. Many people believed the elderberry would be a source for fighting the virus because of its health properties, however, experts found that elderberry had no effect on the virus. “Elderberry has shown not to be effective in decreasing the duration, the severity, or even after the fact for COVID-19.” Dr. Dan goes on to warn listeners against supplement companies that make illegal health claims, as it means they don’t abide by the law and don’t know how to market well. Regardless, the elderberry is still helpful for a multitude of inflammatory conditions and should be considered as an additive to one’s diet. Dr. Dan explains how the elderberry is often overhyped in nutrition media, even though it is helpful. The berry should also be taken with other immune defensive compounds such as, “colostrum, lactoferrin, Andrographis paniculata, and selenium.” In its defense, the elderberry has stood the test of time as a beneficial ingredient to human health. Surely, more information is to be discovered about the benefits of consuming the berry in the near future. 

To learn more about the elderberry, check out the Discover with Dr. Dan | Proactive Health podcast episode below, and be sure to subscribe for new episodes each Tuesday.


Dr. Dan Gubler: (00:09)

Welcome to Discover with Dr. Dan | The Proactive Health Podcast. This podcast is sponsored by Brilliant, an innovative proactive wellness company that discovers bioactive natural products and formulates them to help people discover their innate brilliance. See for more information today, we’re going to be myth-busting. We’re going to be talking about elderberry and the science behind elderberry. And at the end of the episode, we’re going to see, does elderberry have good properties for immune health or not?

Dr. Dan Gubler: (00:44)

So elderberry is a hot ingredient. It does about a hundred million in sales. The sales numbers are growing rapidly. It’s doing about two X a year and so it’s really hot. Immune health is really hot, obviously. The COVID-19 situation, I think has changed our perception of the need for immune health ingredients. And I think this perception, immune health ingredients are a standard – they’re going to stay with us. And I think everybody is going to start taking an immune health supplement. So elderberry is key in that.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (01:15)

So elderberry, is it cool? Is it legit or not? So elderberry is a flowering plant that grows in clusters. And these clusters turn into fruit. These fruit can either be red, blue/red, or a dark black. It grows in temperate climates, usually the northern hemisphere. So Scandinavia, Europe, Russia, North America, US, Canada. It is hardy. It doesn’t need a lot of care to it. It grows in soil that doesn’t need to be the right pH. Rocky soils, different temperature conditions. So it’s very hardy. The elder tree is rich in traditional lore. It was used in witchcraft, in different Pagan societies, Pagan gods. They worshipped them and they saw the elderberry. They thought that elderberry was a gift from these Pagan gods. Elderberries are also used a lot in witchcraft and wizardry. We see this in a J K Rowling, her book, Harry Potter. She uses the elder wand. So with witchcraft and different cultures where witchcraft is practiced, elderberry and the elder bark is a big deal.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (02:22)

So how has elderberry used traditionally? It was, the flowers were used in tea form. The flowers were taken, they were steeped in hot water, flowers were filtered, and then they were drunk as a tea for different properties. It’s a natural dye. When it comes to traditional medicine, they were thought to help with a respiratory health, cold and flu, infections, burns, sprains, insect bites, and basically conditions where inflammation is a problem. Elderberry was also used and concentrated down and made as a wine. And the elder wine is actually a big deal today. It’s used quite often, especially in Europe and Scandinavia and Russia.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (03:02)

So how’s elderberry used today? Elderberry predominantly, it’s used in supplements. It’s used either in a liquid syrup form or in a powder form. To do this, to get this material, they take elderberries, they boiled up in water. They evaporate the water to concentrate it down into the syrup. And that’s what’s used in the syrup form. If they make a powder form, what they do is they take the syrup and they use an extraction, meaning they take a liquid with the syrup, they mix it around and this liquid then pulls out bioactive compounds from the syrup. And then they evaporate this liquid down, stir it around with a powder like silicone or something like that, and then that’s how they get the powder. So elderberry contains polyphenols like anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are a dark purple color. And so fruits and vegetables like plum eggplant purple cabbage have large amounts of anthocyanins in it. And it’s thought that these anthocyanins are the bioactive compounds in elderberry. Anthocyanins are a class of compounds called polyphenols and polyphenols have antioxidant properties. They’re known to regulate gene expression, but whether anthocyanins themselves have bioactive properties, especially towards immune health, that’s what we’re talking about today.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (04:18)

So the mode of action of how it’s proposed that elderberry works is these anthocyanins in elderberry stimulate the immune system, meaning they cause a little bit of inflammation. This little bit of inflammation produces cytokines and the immune system then reacts to the cytokines. They see these cytokines and the immune system then produces macrophages and other weapons that the cell uses to defend itself. So the idea is if you take elderberry, you overstimulate the immune system so you strengthen the immune system, the adaptive immune system, so that these standing armies are ready to ward off against infection.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (04:59)

Let’s look at the science behind elderberry. So in 2020, a year ago, there was a clinical study where they took a hundred people and this study was done in an outpatient clinic as part of the emergency room. And with a hundred people, 50 people, when they were given treatment, took an elderberry extract and 50 people did not. And what they found is they looked for instances of immune health problems, respiratory illness, and they found that it was the same. The duration of influenza and the common cold were the same between the elderberry group and the control group. Another clinical study that was published in 2009, same thing. They took 26 people that took a control, 26 people that took elderberry, and then they followed them for 12 weeks. And again, no difference in immune health, colds, flu, and different respiratory issues. So those two papers showed, they were published in good journals, showed that elderberry was not effective when came to immune health and bolstering the immune system. When it comes to the scientific literature supporting elderberry, the classic study was done in 1995.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (06:07)

So in Panama, there was this huge influenza outbreak. It was terrible. And some researchers, during the height of this flu pandemic in Panama, they gave people an elderberry extract. And so this was a large study, 500 people in total, 250 people took an elderberry extract, 250 people did not. And they found that the duration of the influenza virus went from six days in the control group to two days in the elderberry group. So pretty amazing study, big deal. A lot of people have replicated this study. Some have been for the study, meaning the results were saying that they held up and other people who replicated this experiment didn’t see the same result. So 2009 study, when they were studying the mode of action of how elderberry might work, found that these anthocyanins in elderberry actually bind to the H1N1, the influenza A virus, and prevent it from entering into the cell. It interacts with the vital machinery that the virus injects and punctures the cell to get in. These anthocyanins prevent that.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (07:17)

A paper published in 2011, studying the common cold. Now, when we say common cold, it’s hard to define. When there’s a lot of viruses that infect the body and cause similar upper respiratory responses, and it’s not bacterial in the medical community, we just say it’s the common cold. So there’s lots of different viruses. This study found that elderberry extract helped to reduce the duration and in some cases even prevent the common cold. In 2016, another really cool study that dovetailed with this 1995 study that was done in Panama, this study was done in Australia and these researchers took a group of 316 people that were boarding an airplane from Australia. And then they were going all throughout the world to different locations. And before they left, they had half of this group take an elderberry extract and the other half did not. And then they monitored these people as they travel throughout the world and for six months afterward. And they found that the elderberry group, the incidence of illness was 70% less than the group that did not take elderberry. So again, a really strong study showing the benefits of elderberry.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (08:27)

A 2011 paper showed that elderberry not only had antiviral properties, but also antibacterial properties. And that’s really interesting because when you get bacterial infections that cause upper respiratory problems, the doctors immediately give antibiotics. And so to have a different option to antibiotics or something that supports antibiotics for bacterial infections, that’s a big deal. In 2003, there a study looking at the safety of elderberry extracts and they found that it was safe. They gave large amounts of elderberry to human cells. They cultured these cells and they found that even at really high concentrations, there was no change in the cells and cells functioned normally. And then they also did clinical studies in humans where they had humans take different amounts of elderberry. Then they did a blood draw and they looked at the different amounts of cytokines and different markers in the body that are indicative of if the body is unhealthy and breaking down and they saw no concerns there when it came to safety. And that’s really important. When you take a nutraceutical ingredient in a formula, you obviously want to make sure it’s safe. And so the company that’s producing that formulation should show you that each of the ingredient in the formulation, as well as the finished product that you’re taking, all the ingredients are safe. So that’s a big deal.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (09:51)

When it comes to immune health in this age, top of brain for us is obviously COVID-19. Researchers have been looking at different nutritional supplement ingredients to see if these ingredients can help with COVID-19. Some research has been done. Elderberry has shown not to be effective in decreasing the duration, the severity, or even after the fact for COVID-19. And that’s important because some companies, believe it or not, are saying the elderberry can help with COVID-19. So as a general rule of thumb, if companies, supplement companies, are saying that their product can help against COVID-19, you need to run away from those companies. The FDA has slammed these companies with a lot of warning letters. It shows that these companies don’t know how to market. It shows that they’re desperate. And with a hardcore science showing that these ingredients don’t help with COVID-19, we need to pay attention to those and run away from those companies. And just a reminder, no supplement can make medical claims and obviously COVID-19 is a medical claim. So if people are making medical claims about their supplement for COVID-19 or anything else, again, that’s a indicator that these companies are not science-based.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (11:05)

Related to COVID-19, however, one of the problems with COVID-19 is what’s called a cytokine storm. Where cytokines, inflammatory molecules are produced. It causes a signaling mechanism that goes back into the GNA where more cytokines are produced. And so it causes this inflammation cycle that spirals out of control. And that’s one of the major reasons why COVID-19 is so devastating. And elderberry can stimulate the immune system just a little bit. An interesting study that’s been conducted on an elderberry related to COVID-19 is the stimulating properties of elderberry. You remember, we talked about the way elderberry works is it stimulates the immune system to produce a small amount of cytokines and cytokines are really important in COVID-19. You might’ve heard that what doctors are saying is a cytokine storm. And what happens in COVID-19 is cytokines are produced, these inflammatory molecules, which president small amounts are good for overcoming infection. It’s how the body triggers to fight off infection. What happens at COVID-19 though, is these cytokines interact with the signaling mechanism in the body that goes into the DNA and tells the DNA to produce more cytokines. And so cytokines are produced rapidly in this reproductive cycle. So these cytokines that are produced, travel to the DNA inside the nucleus of the cell and tell the DNA to produce more cytokines. And so you have this destructive loop where cytokines are produced in large amounts, and it causes the health of the cell and the health of the body to degrade rapidly. So people have done studies to see if the stimulating properties of elderberry can make COVID-19 worse because some people will take elderberry for its immune health properties, purported immune health properties, during COVID-19. So they wanted to see. They analyzed over a thousand papers and they had evidence and they saw that COVID-19 is not overstimulated by taking elderberry.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (13:10)

Another really interesting thing about elderberry is they found that when we take elderberry, these anthocyanins, they go into the gut and they’re not really absorbed by the gut and the upper digestive tract of the gut, but they are readily absorbed in the colon. So we’ve talked before about the microbiome. The microbiome, you remember, consists of the 10 trillion bacteria that live in our gut that are responsible for cognitive health, for inflammation, and also there’s some really interesting research on the microbiome and immune health. Good bacteria produce molecules that help to stimulate the innate immune system, meaning the fundamental core of the immune system and how it functions. So papers have shown and there’s more research coming out that the potential reason why elderberry can support immune health is because these bioactive compounds are causing good bacteria to grow in larger amounts. Good bacteria growing in larger amounts, then the immune system is stronger and healthier.

Dr. Dan Gubler: (14:16)

When you look at all the literature put together, the papers for and the papers against elderberry, as you’ve seen from our discussion, it’s clear that the science leans in the elderberry direction. So all this hype and talk about elderberry, there is some merit to it. Now is it as strong as the hype is? Maybe a little bit less, but elderberry really is a nice ingredient. So when you see it in immune health formulations, that’s a good thing. I would put elderberry just a bit below classic immune health ingredients that do have super solid science like colostrum, lactoferrin, Andrographis paniculata and selenium. Those are really good ingredients to help support the immune system along with elderberry. And those ingredients are actually seen in our Brilliant Defend product, an immune health product. Along with those ingredients, we have a blend of natural compounds that inhibit the ability of bad bacteria to talk to each other. And these bad bacteria can compromise the health of the immune system. So from this research, we see the elderberry is a really nice ingredient to use in our immune health arsenal to help keep us healthy and strong. I hope you found this information helpful. It’s been great talking with you guys. This is Dr. Dan signing off.

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