The power of elderberry

Published 9:13 am Friday, March 6, 2020

Hi Dr. Kim,

What do you think of the elderberry syrup? Is it something to keep on hand in case someone catches the flu? — Dan from Elizabethton

Dear Dan,

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I am a fan of elderberry syrup and keep it at home just in case. It is something that I found to be very helpful to my patients as a natural remedy for coughs, colds, and flu symptoms. I do recommend purchasing from local, organic, or reputable brands and avoiding “fad” products, but genuine elderberry syrup is a tradition that is now being rediscovered as researchers investigate it. The most useful bit of research I have found says that people who had the flu and used elderberry syrup had less severe symptoms and recovered more quickly than people who did not use it. This is probably due to the high nutritional value in the elderberry that supplies the right nutrients to help the body fight against the flu, so that’s good enough for me. Elderberry is one of the best-tasting medicinal herbs in existence. It has a sweet, honey-ish flavor that reminds one of blueberry or kiwi. The use of elderberry as a herb dates right into antiquity, when it was considered very bad luck to cut down an Elder tree. However, using the berries is very good luck for people with taxed immune systems. In Oriental medicine, loquat or honey-loquat syrup is used for a similar purpose. The concept of concentrating a medicinal fruit into a syrup to heal respiratory illness is an ancient tradition that worked for our ancestors and still works today. Elderberries cannot be eaten raw. The flowers, stems, leaves, and roots of the Elder tree are poisonous. In Europe, the Elder tree is fondly nicknamed “queen of the underworld” since most parts are poison except for the very beneficial midnight-colored berries. In elderberry syrup, the berries have been cooked to enhance their digestibility. Elderberry syrup recipes today contain the berry, honey, echinacea, and sometimes propolis. Elderberry can be combined with calendula, rose hips, and echinacea. It plays well with other immune-boosting foods and herbs. For those who like to shop local, the Elder tree (sambucus) is native to America and has been found in almost every region including near the coasts.

Elderberry works due to its high concentration of beneficial components. This humble berry from the sambucus plant is dark purple in color, which attests to its high amount of germ-fighting goodies. The elderberry contains tannins, amino acids, flavonoids, and is high in vitamins A, B, and C. Studies in antioxidants say that elderberry protects cells against damage by free radicals. Elderberry is said to stimulate the immune system against invaders and has been employed medically against the flu, colds, congestion, hay fever, and asthma among other things.

If you try to pick an elderberry from the tree, you will see that they break off in bunches. This bunch, which hangs each berry from its own little stem, looks like the alveoli or the lung tissues. The stems are red like blood, mirroring the cardiovascular system. The doctrine of signatures is a theory that suggests medicinal plants look visually similar to the organs they help. Elderberry is a perfect example, because herbal medicine sees it as a “blood purifier,” removing toxins from and invigorating the blood.

Body systems that benefit from elderberries include the lungs, cardiovascular system, the urinary tract, and kidneys. Elderberry stimulates the cells to push out their toxic wastes for elimination. It is a powerful cleaning, purifying herb. How does it help with the prevention of illness? Two ways: First, elderberry helps with the production of antibodies in the immune system. These are “markers” that help the body recognize and attack invaders, distinguishing them from the healthy tissues. Second, elderberries cause the body to “push out” the invaders through sweating, urination, and clearing of the lung tissues (where viruses like to hide).

To use elderberry, follow the instructions on the bottle for your particular brand of elderberry syrup. In general, they amount to 1-2 teaspoons per day for prevention and 3-4 teaspoons per day when feeling under the weather. Elderberry is known to cause sweating and induces a fever to help the immune system kill off invading germs. It is also a diuretic, meaning that it will cause increased urination. Elderberry is available in lozenges or gummies, but when using a traditional remedy I think it is better to avoid modifying the recipe too much. Therefore, I prefer the syrup.

Elderberry alone is not enough for the prevention of illness. Adequate sleep, hygiene, proper nutrition and hydration, and stress management (or lifting your mindset) are all important in supporting the immune system. However, elderberry is a great ally when you are fighting germs, and a good remedy to keep on hand and use often.


Dr. Kimberly McMurtrey, DNP, APRN, FNP-C is the Primary Provider at Tri-Cities Health, located on West Elk Ave., Elizabethton. If you would like to submit a question for her to answer you can call 423-543-7000 or email your questions to

**Medical Disclaimer: The information contained in this column is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.