Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

Elderberry belongs to a family of flowering shrubs known as Sambucus or Elder. They are native to Europe but have become naturalized in many parts of the world including the United States. Cultivated for medicinal and food purposes, the fruit is used to produce jams, syrups, and wine. The berries are a rich source of anthocyanins and other phenolics and nutrients. Several species of Sambucus produce elderberries with similar chemical compositions including American Elder (Sambucus canadensis) and Blue Elder (Sambucus caerulea), but European Elder (Sambucus nigra) is the type most studied and used in supplements.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)


Elderberry has been used for centuries to both prevent and treat colds and flu symptoms, for inflammation and respiratory diseases, and to relieve constipation. The Commission E approved the internal use of elderflower for colds. The British Herbal Compendium lists its uses for the common cold, feverish conditions, and as a diuretic. The German Standard License for elderflower tea calls it a diaphoretic medicine for the treatment of feverish common colds or catarrhal complaints.


The fruit of Sambucus nigra (elderberries) contains several constituents responsible for pharmacological activity. Among these are the flavonoids quercetin and rutin, anthocyanins identified as cyanidin-3-glucoside and cyanidin-3-sambubioside, the hemagglutinin protein Sambucus nigra agglutinin III (SNA-III), cyanogenic glycosides including sambunigrin, viburnic acid, and vitamins A and C.

Clinical Studies

In vitro studies demonstrate that elderberries possess antiviral, antibacterial, antidiabetic, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and chemopreventive properties, although inhibition of cancer cell growth was shown to be weak. Flavonoids and proanthocyanidins were shown to block HIV1 infection and may have additive effects with existing AIDS drugs such as enfuvirtide. Elderberry also conferred protective effects against oxidative stressors in endothelial cells. However, it did not demonstrate vasoprotective effects, and randomized trials found it ineffective in improving cardiovascular disease biomarkers or for improving cholesterol levels. Small studies found elderberry to be safe and effective in a preparation for chronic constipation and in reducing episodes of tonsillitis in children. It may also help reduce symptoms of influenza, but larger studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Biomechanical Mechanism

Elderberry inhibits H1N1 activities by binding to H1N1 virions as well as by blocking host cell recognition and entry. It may also prevent HIV1 infection by binding to viral glycoproteins such as gp120, but additional investigations are required to clarify those mechanisms. Elderberry’s anti-inflammatory effects may result from increased cytokine production or inhibition of nuclear transcription factor kappaB and phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase. An elderberry extract improved metabolic disturbances in a murine model of obesity by lowering serum triglycerides, inflammatory markers, and insulin resistance. Its antidiabetic properties occur via activation of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma and stimulation of insulin-dependent glucose uptake. Elderberry may also influence HDL dysfunction associated with chronic inflammation by affecting hepatic gene expression in hyperlipidemic mice. Another study indicates its chemopreventive potential is related to the induction of quinone reductase as well as cyclooxygenase-2 and ornithine decarboxylase inhibition.


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