More On Immunity Boosters – Elderberry

Elderberry aka Sambucus Nigra, Sambucus W. Hance

A little look into it’s history 

At sites in Switzerland and Italy, researchers have uncovered evidence that the black elderberry may have been cultivated by prehistoric man, and there are recipes for elderberry-based medications in the records dating as far back as Ancient Egypt. Historians, however, generally trace the tradition of the elderberry’s healing power back to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek known as the “father of medicine,” who described this plant as his “medicine chest” for the wide variety of ailments it seemed to cure.

Over the centuries, elderberry has been used to treat colds, flu, fever, burns, cuts, and more than 70 other maladies, from toothache to the plague. In the 17th century, John Evelyn, a British researcher, declared, “If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy [from the elderberry], either for sickness or wounds.”

In Austria…

Father Hermann Josef Weidinger conveys the contentment of a man who has performed great works. Austria’s most beloved herbal healer, the eighty-two year old Catholic priest has penned a dozen books, and more than a hundred botanical products bear his imprimateur. High on the list of his most favorite plants is elderberry. “Elderberry cleanses the digestive system and promotes healthy elimination,” he explains. “I believe that elderberry protects the body from serious diseases, and it balances the emotions. Elderberry is good for the soul.”

Father Weidinger’s reverence for elder Sambucus nigra , recalls the Austrian folk expression “tip your hat to the elder,” connoting the respect that should be extended to the bush whose berries and flowers are used for health purposes. This reverence can be traced back to 400 BC when Hippocrates called elder his “medicine chest.” Renowned classical healers Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Galen also declared the elder and its rich purple berries among nature’s greatest healing plants. Employed for a plethora of ills from arthritis and asthma to colds and constipation, elderberries occupy an esteemed position in European plant medicine.

But elderberry is not lost in a romantic past of bygone herbalists. Today at Germany’s research center for food, agriculture and forestry, Dr. Gerhard Rechkemmer is investigating the anthocyanins – purple antioxidant pigments – in elderberry. His research shows that elderberry enhances immune function by boosting the production of cytokines. “In vitro the anthocyanins in elderberry show very high antioxidant activity. But they are extremely hard to track in blood plasma, so we do not know exactly what they are doing in the body.” When asked if he thinks that further elderberry research will reveal additional health benefits, Rechkemmer nods. “I believe so, but we must go beyond belief to certain knowledge.”

With scientific examination of elderberry’s biological activity underway, Austrian elderberry production is increasing rapidly due to strong market demand. At 8,000 tons of cultivated elderberry per year, Austria’s commercial production is double that of 1995. Much of this is due to the work of Kurt Kaufmann, a seemingly indefatigable elderberry proponent who has organized one thousand Austrian growers into a co-op, and built Berenfrost, an immense non-profit berry freezing facility where elderberries are cooled immediately after harvest. “In September at harvest, the elderberries must be cooled immediately, or they spoil. Here at Berenfrost elderberries are chilled to –20øC in less than twenty-four hours.” I ask Kurt how much tonnage of berries he can take in on one day. “We can handle about 600 tons per day, but last year one day we took in 1,600 tons in twenty-four hours.” I ask him if he sleeps. “Not during harvest” he replies with a wide smile.

Austria’s Haschberg variety of elder produces a high yield of sweet, richly purple berries. After freezing at Berenfrost, the berries move into the food and beverage industry, where they are used in juices, jams, fruit yogurts and wines. Demand is also growing for high anthocyanin elderberry extracts for the nutraceutical field. Amidst this berry boom, Doctors Werner Pfannhauser and Michael Murkovic at Austria’s University of Graz have conducted research showing that elderberry extract reduces oxidation of LDL cholesterol and exhibits a beneficial antioxidant effect in the body. These results do not come as a surprise. In vitro, anthocyanins from elderberry demonstrate unusually high antioxidant activity- much greater in fact than highly touted bilberry. “I am certain that elderberry is beneficial,” notes Murcovic.

At a large table a dozen of us dine at a recondite place near the Slovenian border. There endocrinologist Dr. Sepp Porta describes an exciting stress study he conducted using elderberry concentrate on a group of volunteers. “We only gave these people the elderberry for ten days,” he notes with expressive hand gestures. “We put them through typical stress tests, and the results were so remarkable, I checked them over and over.” In the study, various bio-markers of stress, including glucose, magnesium and other plasma chemical levels, were analyzed. “What we found was that elderberry has this extraordinary effect for reducing stress,” notes Porta. It is for this reason that researchers from the US Air Force sit with us. Elderberry may hold promise for stress reduction among military personnel.

Sitting beside me, Austria’s largest elderberry producer Josef Holler smiles at Porta’s words. “We are involved in a very good thing. It is good for people’s lives. This is satisfying.” He raises a glass of dark red Austrian wine for a toast to the noble elderberry, and we all drink to that.

A Few Facts…

  • Black elderberry extract has been found to be effective against the H5N1 strain of Avian Flu  (Zakay-Rones et al 1995)
  • Black elderberry extract contains a unique compound called Antivirin® that can help protect healthy cells and inactivate  infectious viruses
  • When given to patients, scientists have found the black elderberry extract, has the ability to ward off flu infections quickly  (Zakay-Rones 2004)
  • Black Elderberries are rich in anthocyanins which are a type of flavonoid –  anthocyanins are antioxidants that may protect cells from free radicals and support your body’s immune system.
  • Black Elderberries have almost 5 times as many anthocyanins as Blueberries and twice the overall antioxidant capability of cranberries 
  • Black Elderberry has a more potent antiviral effect than Echinacea
  • Some Age Old Traditions…

    • The Romans used elderberry juice as a hair dye
    • The word ‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo Saxon word ‘aeld’, meaning ‘fire ’
    • Pagans believe that the black elder tree is sacred to the Moon Goddess

    Understanding The Immune System

    Inside your body there is a protection mechanism called the immune system. It is designed to defend you against millions of bacteria, microbes, viruses, toxins and parasites that are waiting to invade your body.

    The Immune System is made up of hundreds of different mechanisms and processes that are all kicked into action when it comes under threat from various ‘insults’ such as viruses, bacteria and pollutants. An example, are the cytokines which bring immune cells to the site of infection, to promote healing.

     Inflammation is one of the first responses of the immune system to infection. The signs of inflammation, redness and swelling, are caused by increased blood flow into tissues.

    Due to the environment we live in today we are constantly surrounded by these threats and having and maintaining a healthy Immune System becomes really important.

    Threats to the Immune System – Viruses

    The most common threat to your immune system is from viruses. A virus is a tiny disease causing particle that likes to live in your body’s cells.

    The virus that most of us know about is the common cold virus.  Although more than 200 viruses can cause a common cold, the rhinovirus is the most common culprit, and it is highly contagious.

    A cold virus enters your body through your mouth or nose, but it is likely you also had a “hand” in your own illness. The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks. But it also spreads by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold or by using shared objects, such as utensils, towels, toys or telephones. Touch your eyes, nose or mouth after such contact or exposure, and you’re likely to “catch” a cold.

    Understanding Antivirin ( Elderberry)

    Treating Viruses

    Studies have shown that taking a supplement containing black elderberry may be beneficial to help boost the immune system at times when it may be weakened, such as when suffering with a cold, flu or other viruses. A study using an elderberry extract (Zakay-Rones 1995) showed inhibition of several flu viruses in vitro.

    An Antiviral Agent – ‘Antivirin’

    Viruses are unable to multiply on their own and need to be inside healthy cells to do so.  To help them enter a cell some viruses are coated with haemagglutinin spikes. Black Elderberry Extract is believed to contain an antiviral agent, ‘Antivirin’ which can help neutralise the activity of the haemagglutinin spikes. When these spikes are deactivated the viruses can no longer pierce cell walls to enter the cell and replicate.

    Elderberries are particularly rich in flavonoids, in particular anthocyanins.  These act as powerful antioxidants to help the immune system defend itself.   

    Anthocyanins are found in the pigment of purple, dark blue and red fruits such as the black elderberry. Elderberries contain higher flavonoid content than other fruits including cranberries, blackcurrants and blackberries and almost 5 times the anthocyanins content of blueberries. 

    Due to the high anthocyanin content, the black elderberry has powerful antioxidant properties to also help attack the viruses.

    Understanding Antioxidants

    Free radicals damage and the role of Antioxidants.

    Free radicals are molecules with one or more unpaired electrons. They are a by-product of a normal bodily process involving the metabolism of oxygen for energy. Environmental factors such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, radiation and ultraviolet light can also cause free radicals to form.
    Because free radicals lack an electron, they are unstable and highly reactive. As a result of their instability they steal electrons from other cells.  This in turn destabilizes those cells, turning them into free radicals. This can cause a chain reaction which can occur indefinitely, causing destruction to the body as cellular damage accumulates.
    Free radicals enter our bodies as we breathe in polluted air and cigarette smoke, and are generated during prolonged stress or illness and through every metabolic reaction involving oxygen.  When oxygen molecules become unstable they seek to stabilise by reacting with other chemicals. If left unchecked, this leads to inflammation and arterial wall damage.
    This sort of damage is the number-one cause of ageing and a significant contributor to diseases in those aged 60 or over.
    Defence of the Immune System – Antioxidants

    One of the best ways our body deals with attacks on the immune system is with its own natural antioxidants.  When a virus or pollutant enters the body these antioxidants work by attacking them to stop them damaging the body.  As the name suggests they do ‘anti’ or the opposite job to the attackers.

    Our bodies contain natural antioxidants in the form of vitamins, minerals and hormones, but due to the increased stress modern society puts on us it can be good to take in more in our diet.

    Antioxidants are natural substances that may slow or prevent damage to the body’s cells. They are thought to protect the cells from these unstable molecules by reacting with them .

    Antioxidants prevent free radicals from damaging cells by donating electrons to the free radicals, thereby stabilizing them. When an antioxidant loses an electron, it remains stable and thus does not itself become a free radical. Therefore, a diet rich in antioxidants could be beneficial to health. A study by Abjua et al (1998) conducted in vitro demonstrated antioxidant activity of elderberry juice.

    Studies throughout the last 30 years reveal that many of the so-called degenerative diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and arthritis arise because of a deficiency in antioxidants

    Understanding Flavonoids

    Flavonoids  – Natural antioxidants
    Flavonoids are powerful, natural antioxidants that work to protect the body’s cells from the potential damage thought to be caused by free radicals.  Flavonoids can be found in certain every day foods such as fruit and vegetables.

    The importance of one type of Flavonoid – Anthocyanins
    Of special interest are a particular group of flavonoids called anthocyanins. These can be found in the pigments of purple, dark blue and red fruits such as the black elderberry   (Mateus et al 2004). It is the activity of the anthocyanin pigments that give the black elderberry powerful antioxidant action.

    Elderberries may contain more than 1% of anthocyanins and other polyphenols. The colour of the berries is mainly due to the presence of the anthocyanin cyanidin-3-glucoside which has 3.5 times the antioxidative activity than that of a vitamin E analogue.

    The anthocyanins that occur naturally in the black elderberry are some of the most potent in the plant world. Therefore they can be extremely effective at preventing free radicals from causing any damage and have a remarkable ability which may help to stimulate the body’s immune system.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the highest concentration of anthocyanins are found in black elderberries – this is nearly double the amount found in any other fruit and almost 5 times higher than blueberries.

    Clinical Summary

    Research data from studies around the world have proven black elderberry extract to be effective in shortening the duration of influenza A and B. Below are some research highlights:

    • 1995 (Zakay-Rones)- A double blind placebo controlled study was conducted during an outbreak of influenza B Panama. 93.3% of the cases treated with black elderberry compound saw a significant improvement of the symptoms. A complete cure was achieved within 2 to 3 days in nearly 90% of those treated with the black elderberry extract within two-three days, three days less than the placebo group.
    • 2001 – (Barak, Halperin and Kalickman) 2 in-vitro studies have shown that extracts from black elderberry were beneficial to the stimulation of the immune system.
    • 2004 –( Zakay-Rones) In a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study, black elderberry extract was shown to significantly reduce the duration of the flu by around four days. Significantly less people who were taking the extract took pain relievers compared to the placebo group.
    • 2005 –(Balasingham ) During an in-vitro study carried out in London, black elderberry extract was found to be at least 99% effective against the H5N1 strain otherwise known as Avian Bird Flu.

    Effective as an immune booster

    Medical science has only recently discovered the likely basis for the elderberry’s health-giving reputation. Studies (Pietta 2000, Mateus 2004) have shown that elderberries are unusually rich in the phytochemicals known as flavonoids. Among all fruits, elderberries are the most concentrated source of anthocyanins, a class of flavonoids that act as powerful antioxidants to boost the immune system and protect the body’s cells from harm.

    These anthocyanins are found in the purple pigment of black elderberries, and  according to Dr. Gerhard Rechkemmer, president of Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Nutrition and Food, they have significantly greater antioxidant capacity than common antioxidants such as Vitamin C.  In fact, Dr. Rechkemmer’s research has shown that the anthocyanins in black elderberry actually boost the production of cytokines, the proteins that act as messengers within our immune system, and thereby serve to enhance the body’s immune response.

    Cytokines play a crucial role in the immune system’s response to disease.  Cytokines work in ways very similar to hormones. They are released by immune cells into the blood stream or locally into body tissue during an immune response.

    There are many different types of cytokines including interleukins, interferons and tumor necrosis factors.

    Several studies have shown that extracts from the fruits of the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) may help to activate the immune system by increasing inflammatory cytokine production. (Barak 2001, Barak2002))

    Both studies above found that extracts from black elderberries helped increase the production of interleukins 6 and 8 (IL-6, IL-8) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α). All of which have been shown to have pro-inflammatory properties in fighting infection (2,3).

    One study (Barak 2002) also demonstrated that an extract of black elderberry increased the production of the anti-inflammatory cytokine Il-10.

     What the kids and I have tried…

    Well I bought a bottle of Sambucol to try and the kids love the taste.  Also it appears their immunity to viruses is improving but hey I guess it will take as long as 3 monthts to really ascertain that fact.  Also it is not exactly cheap since a bottle contains only 120ml.  Recommended daily dosage is 10ml for adults and 5ml for kids.


    2 Responses

    1. is elderberry safe to take during pregnancy?

      • Due to a lack of clinical data available on the use of Sambucol during pregnancy, it is advisable to avoid taking the product at this time. Consumers are advised to consult their GP before starting to take any new supplement or medication during pregnancy.


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