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Cass Ingram

The Health Benefits of Wild Elderberry – More than Just Cold and Flu

There can be no doubt that elderberry extracts are healthful. Yet, clearly those made from wild plants are more potent than extracts from commercial varieties. This includes any wild-based supplements and also direct use by locals of the wild-source plant.
The use of exclusively wild plants was the medical tradition of the Native Americans, who relied upon elderberry extensively. In particular, it was used to treat fever and congestion, as well as joint pain, including rheumatism. The powerful shrub-like tree thrives in the remote Canadian and North American wilderness and is a tough plant, growing rapidly in the spring. In the summer, after blossoming, the wild tree produces countless small, purplish-black berries, which contain significant medicinal powers.
The plant was also highly touted by the ancients, including the Greeks. Hippocrates deemed it a “medicine chest for the common people.” According to the 17th century English writer Evelyn, “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…”
The conditions for which it found utility in those early times included infections, diarrhea, chronic constipation, and muscular/joint pain.  Also, as early as the 1740s it was considered throughout Europe a dependable remedy for the common cold.
At a minimum, elderberry fruit is highly nutritional, representing an excellent source of  anthocyanins and vitamins A and C, while offering goodly amounts of calcium, iron, and vitamin B6. It is also a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6. Wild plants also contain a wide range of phenolic compounds, including essential oils, as well as plant sterols and tannins. This is why wild elderberry, in particular, can be considered an invaluable health food.
In American folk medicine, the berries were used to induce sweating, ideal for head colds and flu, as well as for their laxative and diuretic properties. Historically, the berries and their juice extract, as well as the home-made syrup, were relied upon for aches and pains, sore throat, colds/flu, and constipation. There was also early use for bronchial and sinus disorders.  Specialized tannins and also the compound viburnic acid were found to have a beneficial action versus diarrhea, while also relieving spastic colon and nasal congestion.
Regarding oxidative damage, the body can always use additional support. Wild elderberry has been found to have a significantly high antioxidant capacity, in fact, one of the highest of all American fruit. In one study by Wu and his associates, 2004, the American elderberry was found to have greater antioxidant capacity than cranberry or blueberry.  Elderberry juice is a dense source of antioxidative phenolic compounds. The phenolic compounds in elderberry are unusually well absorbed and thus act on the cell membranes to block oxidative damage. This is facilitated by taking elderberry extracts as drops under the tongue, with wild oregano oil-enhanced raw extracts being more bioavailable than heavily heated versions. Even so, heated versions have their value, and this is the historical means of concentrating elderberry’s active ingredients.

Antiviral actions

A number of studies demonstrate the antiviral actions of elderberry extract. In work done by Barak, 2001, it was shown that the substance complex inhibited the growth of 11 strains of flu virus, while increasing the body’s defensive mechanisms. This positive result occurs with both commercial and wild versions, although the truly unprocessed wild extract is more potent, as well as more broad –spectrum in its actions.

Antitumor powers

No doubt elderberry extracts help block oxidative damage within cell membranes, blocking lipid degeneration. In one study a primary antioxidant in the extract, cyaniding 3-glucoside, was found to inhibit human cancer cells in cell culture studies. The various purplish anthocyanins are directly toxic to cancer tissue, while also helping to prevent tumor formation by blocking oxidative damage to the cells.
The general view of the commercial extracts, those that are standardized and heavily processed, is that there is a basic benefit. The main published action is to possibly shorten the duration of cold and flu. With wild elderberry extracts, for instance, syrups and concentrates, the benefits are far more extensive. As well, raw extracts are particularly potent, with all the phytochemicals in the original, highly energized, vital state. Raw extracts offer potent enzymatic action unavailable in highly processed versions. Beware, though, of consuming large amounts of freshly-squeezed elderberry juice, as this can cause intestinal irritation as well as nausea.
There is a major difference, the one being largely limited to immune potentiation, the other being a broad-spectrum natural medicine useful for a wide range of conditions. Consider the King James Materia Medica, 1854, regarding the Canadian-source wild plant. The list it provides of properties and uses is diverse: as a potent sweat-inducing agent, as a cleanser of the liver, and as a diuretic for purging the kidneys. No commercial extract can tout such properties. Furthermore, it was held in the Materia Medica over this century as effective in the following conditions:

  • erysipelas
  • gout
  • arthritis
  • fever
  • eczema and various rashes
  • constipation/blocked intestines
  • lowered resistance for fighting infection
An early 19th century description of its uses.

Only a truly whole food or wild form of elderberry could achieve such additional benefits. This is supported by modern research, including work in the Journal of Food Medicine, which demonstrates the fact that wild elderberry has a higher density in active ingredients than most cultivars, including a denser amount of anthocynanins.
The most well tolerated types of elderberry supplements are the cooked juice or syrup and the raw, wild extract. With a true concentrate of the wild, raw berries the dose should be reasonable, like 20 to 40 drops of a raw, potent extract a few times daily, then, if desired, a maintenance of five to 10 drops daily. Avoid consuming excessive quantities of raw elderberry juice in order to avoid gastric/intestinal irritation.

Kinoshita, E., et al. 2012. Anti-influenza virus effects of elderberry juice and its fractions. Biosci. Biotech. Biochem. 76:1633.
The National Druggist, Volume 48, 1918.
Zakay-Rones, Z., Thom, E., and T. Wollan. 2004. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J. Int. Med. Res. 32(2).

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