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As we come into cold and flu season, I thought it would be helpful to discuss an excellent herbal remedy to keep your family healthy. This remedy is elderberry syrup! Elderberry has been used for centuries for various conditions, and it has recently come into the spotlight as a very powerful remedy for colds, flu, and even heart health.
Elderberries are one of my favorite herbal remedies. We used to have an elderberry bush right on our property, but our goats ate the…whole….bush! Luckily, we have lots of elderberries not far from where we live. I forage both the berries and the flowers pretty regularly.
History of elderberry use
Elderberry has been known for centuries to be a very powerful, healing herbal ally. Elderberry usage has been dated back to 400 BC. Some ancient Egyptians had elderberry tincture buried with them. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek scholar who was called the “father of medicine”, described elderberry as his “medicine chest” due to the wide variety of issues that elderberry was used for. Even ancient Native Americans cherished this plant, and used it for many different issues, especially for treating infections.
Healing properties of elderberry
Elderberry has so many healing properties and constituents. Most importantly, it is one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. Elderberries and the flowers are a very good source of antioxidant flavonols and anthocyanins. These antioxidants, along with the vitamins this little berry contains, is very helpful for supporting your immune system. Antioxidants help reduce the damage from the oxidative stress that we all experience through normal metabolism. By removing this oxidative stress, antioxidants can help prevent chronic disease such as diabetes and cancer.
Elderberries also contain high concentrations of bioflavonoids, which inhibit a virus’s ability to reproduce, and in turn, help to boost the immune system. The polyphenols present in elderberries can help to increase the number of white blood cells.
The most notable benefit of elderberry is immune support. That’s why most commercial elderberry products, like elderberry syrup, will simply say “immune support” on the label. Because it is an herbal remedy, FDA regulations restrict saying much else as far as benefits go.
Nutritional facts of elderberry
Elderberries are very low-calorie and low in fat, but high in nutrition. They are high in fiber, providing as much as 1/3 of the recommended daily intake in just 1 cup. Elderberries also have high levels of vitamin A, vitamin C folate, calcium, iron, and potassium. They have more antioxidants than their “super” cousin, the blueberry.
- Immune boosting
- Reduces inflammation
Uses for elderberry
Elderberry has been used for centuries in folk medicine to treat colds, flu, fevers, infections, dental pain, headaches, and nerve pain. It was also used traditionally as a laxative and a diuretic. Some people now swear by elderberry’s effectiveness in treating symptoms and shortening the length of common colds and flu. There have been many studies done on elderberry that have shown good results in treating these viruses.
Studies done on mice have shown some promise in promoting heart health. These studies have demonstrated the potential to reduce the level of fat in the blood, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol, but there hasn’t been enough research done in humans to confirm this. Scientists have found that elderberries can reduce uric acid levels in the blood, which is also beneficial for heart health.
Elderberries and elderflowers are shown to increase insulin secretion and promote better blood sugar levels. In various studies, diabetic rats have been given elderberries, and they have shown improved blood sugar control. It should be noted that while elderberries show lots of promise in aiding in the treatment of diabetes, most elderberry preparations are loaded with lots of sugar. An elderberry extract, in supplement form, should probably be used instead of traditional elderberry treatments if you are concerned with sugar intake.
Another use for elderberry is for digestive system health. Elderberries stimulate the secretion of digestive juices, and prevent constipation. They have also shown success in inhibiting the growth of bacteria like H. pylori.
Elderberry has even shown to have anti-cancer properties. It has been found in test-tube studies that it may be able to inhibit cancer growth. Israeli scientists are actually studying the effectiveness in treating HIV/AIDS.
Since elderberries are anti-bacterial, they are helpful for bronchitis and sinusitis. And because they are anti-inflammatory, they are helpful in treating joint pain, arthritis, and headaches.
By far, the most tested and studied modern-day use for elderberries is the popular elderberry syrup for colds. It has been shown in study after study to lessen the severity and duration of the common cold.
Basic elderberry syrup recipe
Here is a very basic elderberry syrup recipe.
- 1 cup fresh or dried elderberries
- 4 cups filtered water
- 1 cup honey (raw is best)
- Juice from 1/2 of a lemon
Put the water and elderberries in a pot over medium heat. Once you get a rolling boil, reduce heat and allow to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Mash the berries with a potato masher. Strain the berries out of the liquid with a fine mesh strainer. When the liquid has cooled to nearly room temperature, add the honey and stir thoroughly. Then squeeze the juice from 1/2 of a lemon into the mixture and stir again. Pour the syrup into a glass jar and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
You can add other beneficial ingredients to this syrup to enhance its immune boosting power. I like to add ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. You can also make a variation with sugar if you want to use less honey. Keep in mind, children under 12 months shouldn’t have honey, so if making the syrup for very young children, you should use sugar or maple syrup in place of the honey. There are also variations of elderberry syrup that are safe to water bath can, for longer shelf life, if you have lots of berries you want to process for later use.
As with any foraged herbal remedy, please make absolutely sure you have the correct identification of the plant.
Elderberry just so happens to have a few lookalike plants that are poisonous!
Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is native to Europe but has been naturalized to many other parts of the world. The American variety can get up to 12 feet in height. The bark is smooth and grayish-green, with bumps all down the branches. Leaves are opposite, growing on both
sides of the branches, and have “sawtoothed” edges. The leaves are oblong, dark green, and somewhat shiny. There is typically 5-7 leaves on each stem.
In the spring, the elderberry bush has large white clusters, also known as “umbrels”, of tiny, off-white flowers. The flowers have 5 petals and typically have 5 stamens coming out of them. The stamens are long and have a yellow top. When the flowers die off, they are
replaced by berries. The berries start off as green, then reddish-purple, then black or blue-black when they are ripe. The berries are
tiny as well, a little larger than the size of BB gun pellets.
Here is a YouTube video I just put on my channel on identifying elderberry.
Sometimes the berries are smooth and shiny, and other times they have a white coating on them, that makes them look more bluish. This white coating is wild yeast, and can be used as a starter for sourdough or home brewing. It also lends itself perfectly for combining with honey to make fermented elderberry honey.
Please note that there is also a red variety of elderberry, but it is poisonous and shouldn’t be used.
Most of the elderberry plant – leaves, bark, roots, even raw berries – can be poisonous. The berries should be cooked prior to consumption. Raw berries contain a cyanide-like substance that can make people sick if consumed in fairly large quantities. If you eat raw berries, you may experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Elderberry products should not be used if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Elderberry products are considered safe overall, but there hasn’t been enough research done to confirm if safe during pregnancy or lactation.
Those with autoimmune diseases are cautioned not to use elderberry. Since elderberry is an immune stimulant, it can actually increase the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.
If you are under a doctor’s care for any type of chronic issue, please consult your doctor before using elderberry products.
Please note, I am not a doctor, nurse practitioner, or certified herbalist. I just love herbs and home remedies and want to share my experiences with you!
Elderberry is a wonderfully healing herb that can be found throughout most of North America and Europe. It shows a lot of promise in treating some very difficult ailments. This unassuming little berry should be in everyone’s medicine chest. I hope you’ll try using elderberry syrup the next time you have a cold or the flu. You’ll thank me!