Elderberry Syrup: 5 Reasons Why You Should Take It - And Make It - This Winter

By Rachel Hershberger, MS CNS LDN

Elderberry is gaining in popularity as a cold and flu remedy. But is it effective? How does it work?

This article explains how this powerful medicinal food works and why you should use it. Bonus: Two quick and easy recipes for elderberry tea and syrup that you can make this week.

What is Elderberry?

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) is the berry of the elder plant, also known as black elder or European elder (1,2).

Elderberries are small purple-black berries that grow in clusters and have a short season of availability in late summer through early fall (1).

The elderberry must be cooked prior to use. Uncooked and unripe berries, leaves and stems contain harmful cyanide-producing alkaloids that can result in vomiting, diarrhea, and toxicity (1,3,4). These compounds are destroyed by heat (1,4).

Elderberry has been used throughout history to treat a variety of ailments, and to induce sweating for detoxification (1,2).

Currently, the elderberry is commonly used for treatment of colds, flu, fever, and for improving immunity (2,4).

Summary: Elderberry is a plant with medicinal properties that is commonly used to treat viral infections, notably the cold and flu. Stems and raw berries should not be eaten due to the presence ofpoisonous compounds.

5 Reasons Why Elderberry is Great for Winter Wellness

  1. It decreases symptoms and the number of days that you're sick. Elderberry shortens the duration of a cold by an average of 2 days when taken before and during illness (5). In one study, elderberry was effective in significantly reducing the symptoms and duration of the flu when taken within 2 days of the first symptoms (6).
  2. It has demonstrated anti-viral properties. Unlike antibiotics, which have no effect on viral infections (7), elderberry is a potent anti-viral (1,2,8,9).  The active constituents of elderberry achieve this through strengthening the cellular wall and inhibiting the enzyme that viruses use to penetrate cells (8).
  3. It boosts the immune system. Extracts from elderberry increase cytokines IL-1 beta, TNF-alpha, IL-6, IL-8 and IL-10, which fight infection (1,8).
  4. It's high in antioxidants. Elderberries contain multiple flavonoids with powerful antioxidant properties that are readily absorbed and utilized by humans (1,3,10). Notable antioxidants found in elderberries include quercitin, rutin and several anthocyanins (3,11).
  5. It's tasty! Elderberry is one of the tastiest herbs out there. Sick of using precious energy just to get a sick kid to take medicine? Elderberry syrup is also used for children (4,9).

Summary:  Elderberry is effective against viral infections and can significantly shorten the duration of an illness. This is due to elderberry's anti-viral and immune enhancing properties and high antioxidant content.

Is There Anyone Who Shouldn't Take Elderberry?

People with autoimmune diseases or who are taking immunosuppressive drugs should not take elderberry due to its effects on the immune system (3,6,8). Some studies suggest use of elderberry in certain immune related conditions, but note the need for further research (3,8,10)

There is a potential for people with grass allergies to have an allergic reaction when ingesting elderberry (1,4,12). A recent study found that short-term cooking of elderberries reduced allergen potential without greatly affecting anti-oxidant properties (13).

Elderberry has been used and found to be effective for children in studies (4,9). Syrup preparations for children are available commercially.

There are no known reports of adverse effects in pregnant or breastfeeding women (1,4).  However, insufficient research exists to determine the safety of elderberry for pregnant and breastfeeding women (1,3,4).

Summary: Elderberry should not be taken by people with autoimmune conditions or who are taking immunosuppressive drugs. Some sensitive populations such as pregnant and lactating women should exercise caution.

How to Make Your Own Elderberry Tea or Syrup

Elderberry is great for colds and flu, but buying an extract or syrup in the store can be tough on the budget. Elderberry preparations made at home can be a cost effective alternative.

Making Elderberry Syrup

Just make sure to buy quality ingredients from a reputable source such as Mountain Rose Herbs.

It is important to note that these are traditionally used methods of preparation; the potency cannot be verified and may differ from commercially prepared products. 

Here are two easy, DIY recipes to try:

        Elderberry Tea
           10g (about 2 Tbsp.) dried elderberries
           1 cup water
            Optional spices: cinnamon, clove, ginger, orange peel, turmeric
            Honey or other sweetener
            In a small saucepan, Simmer berries and spices for 10 minutes, covered. 
            Strain into a mug. 
            Sweeten with honey and enjoy. 
            Adult Dose: 1 cup (made with 10g berries),3-4 times per day (4)
        Basic Elderberry Syrup
            1 cup dried elderberries
            4-5 cups filtered water
            1 inch fresh ginger, smashed
            2-3 cinnamon sticks
            5 whole cloves (optional)
            2 cups raw honey
            1/4 c. apple cider vinegar (optional)
            Add all ingredients except for the honey into a medium saucepan.
            Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer.
            Simmer for 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half.
            Strain liquid through a fine mesh strainer to remove solids.
            Allow the liquid to cool, then combine with the raw honey.
            Store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator. 
            Lasts up to 6 weeks when stored properly.

Dosing: I follow the same dosing guidelines for standardized preparations, using a ratio of 1:1. Doses should be spread throughout the day in 2-4 hour increments due to the quick excretion rate of elderberry from the body (14).

  • For Acute Illness (1,6,9)
    • Adults: 1 Tbsp. 4 times daily for 3-5 days
    • Children: 1 tsp. 4 times daily for 3-5 days
  • For Daily Wellness (4)
    • Adults: 2 tsp. 1 time daily
    • Children: 1 tsp. 1 time daily

Take Homes

Elderberry syrup is one of my personal favorites for winter health due to its high antioxidant content, effectiveness against viral infections, and immune boosting properties . 

There are many different ways to incorporate elderberry into your winter medicine chest. You can make your own tea or syrup, or buy one of many products in the cough and cold aisle of your favorite store.

Never ingest raw berries or stems, which have poisonous compounds in them that are destroyed by heat.

To ensure potency, buy from reputable brands. Though the potency of DIY preparations can't be tested, I prefer the ease and cost effectiveness of making my own syrup and tea.  Constantly buying elderberry syrup was a budget buster!

Elderberry Tea (with honey) or Syrup is a tasty way to keep you and your family healthy during the winter months. Enjoy!


Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, and should not be used as a substitute for appropriate professional or medical care.