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What is Elderberry?


Elderberry refers to the fruit from a genus of flowering plants known as Sambucus. Elderberries and elderflowers are used as food and flavouring agents throughout Europe, where they are also grown ornamentally. Elderberries have been used in folk medicine for thousands of years, and feature in a number of medical traditions. It is said that in 400BC, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, referred to the Elder tree as his 'medicine chest', which is apt, as the plant has been used to treat a large number of ailments (1).

Where does Elderberry come from?

There are a number of different elderberry species, of which Black elderberry or Sambucus nigra is traditionally used in medicine. This plant is found in many places including Europe, America and Asia.

Elderberry Benefits

Elderberries have been used in European traditional medicine for respiratory and gastrointestinal illness, and in Chinese medicine they have been used in the treatment of rheumatism and injury.

In modern complimentary medicine, elderberry is primarily used in the treatment of cold and flu symptoms, however, the berry has been the subject of an ever increasing amount of research, which has uncovered a number of potential properties of this fruit.

Elderberry is established as having significant antioxidant effects, which means it is effective in reducing free radical mediated cell and DNA damage (2). It is rich in anthrocyanins, which are thought to stimulate the immune system (3), and studies have shown that the use of elderberry extracts has had a marked antiviral effect, reducing the duration and severity of various viral illnesses, including influenza (4). Anthrocyanins from elderberries may also improve cognitive function (5), and the berry is being trialled for its role in the treatment of certain types of cancer (6).

There is also some evidence to suggest that elderberry extract may improve the lipid profile (7), bone density (8), and have diuretic properties (9).

Elderberry Benefits for Bodybuilding

A number of these properties make elderberry a great food for bodybuilders. Heavy training places stress on the body, which can take a toll on the immune system, meaning an immune booster like elderberry can come in handy. Heavy training also increases oxidative cell damage and antioxidants play a big role in prevention. This, in turn, can speed up recovery.

The improvement of the connection between mind and muscle is important for effective training, the diuretic effect may be useful for people trying to lose body water prior to competition, and elderberry has general health benefits that can help maximise results.

Elderberry Side Effects, Negatives, and Cons

The list of potential benefits of elderberries is formidable, and there is a fair amount of research being conducted into this folk medicine staple. Unfortunately, a lot of present information we have on the effects of this plant is based on small trials or experiments in animals.

There is no doubt that elderberry is a very nutritious fruit and a great source of antioxidants, however the 'superfood' tag can be misleading. Many other fruits and vegetables contain antioxidant levels that are as high, if not higher than elderberries, and while elderberry consumption may exert a positive effect, it is important to remember that comsumption of a food like elderberry is no substitute for the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet.

Elderberry Dosage & Timing

Elderberry is most commonly found as part of an antioxidant supplement or general health tonic. The dose will vary on the strength of the extract and the amount used, and there is a lot of variety, with some products containing up to 10g of extract, and others comtaining less than one one-hundredth of that amount. These type of products are generally taken once or twice a day.

Elderberry is also commonly used to treat cold or flu, and in these cases, is used throughout the day in the form of juice or extract. Once again, there is a huge amount of variety.

As the amount of active ingredient will vary between preparations, the best advice is to follow the directions on the package.

Stacking Elderberry

Elderberry is commonly found with other antioxidants and fruit and vegetable extracts. These are great mixed in with a protein shake after a workout to assist recovery. If elderberry is being used to treat a cold, it stacks well with zinc and vitamin C.

Elderberry Supplements

Elderberry is usually found in superfood and antioxidant blends, and has made its way into pre-workouts like Muscletech's unfortunately discontinued Neurocore. It may also be available as a stand alone supplement.

(1) A Modern Herbal - Elder. Botanical.com (1923-01-06). Retrieved on 11th December 2014.
(2) Vlachojannis JE, Cameron M, Chrubasik S. A systematic review on the sambuci fructus effect and efficacy profiles. Phytother Res. 2010 Jan;24(1):1-8.
(3) Duymuş HG, Göger F, Başer KH. In vitro antioxidant properties and anthocyanin compositions of elderberry extracts. Food Chem. 2014 Jul 15;155:112-9.
(4) Kinoshita E, Hayashi K, Katayama H, Hayashi T, Obata A. Anti-influenza virus effects of elderberry juice and its fractions. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2012;76(9):1633-8.
(5) Zafra-Stone S, Yasmin T, Bagchi M, Chatterjee A, Vinson JA, Bagchi D. Berry anthocyanins as novel antioxidants in human health and disease prevention. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007 Jun;51(6):675-83.
(6) Bagchi D, Sen CK, Bagchi M, Atalay M. Anti-angiogenic, antioxidant, and anti-carcinogenic properties of a novel anthocyanin-rich berry extract formula. Biochemistry (Mosc). 2004 Jan;69(1):75-80, 1 p preceding 75.
(7) Ivanova D, Tasinov O, Kiselova-Kaneva Y. Improved lipid profile and increased serum antioxidant capacity in healthy volunteers after Sambucus ebulus L. fruit infusion consumption. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2014 Sep;65(6):740-4.
(8) Badescu L, Badulescu O, Badescu M, Ciocoiu M. Mechanism by Sambucus nigra Extract Improves Bone Mineral Density in Experimental Diabetes. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:848269.
(9) Wright CI, Van-Buren L, Kroner CI, Koning MM. Herbal medicines as diuretics: a review of the scientific evidence. J Ethnopharmacol. 2007 Oct 8;114(1):1-31.

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