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Folk medicine has used elderberries for hundreds of years. Indigenous people have used them to treat rheumatism and fevers, and ancient Egyptians use them for burns and to improve their skin. Today, scientific research has examined elderberries for their effects on the immune system, which may help fight colds, the flu, and similar conditions. Elderberries can come in the form of capsules, lozenges, and syrups, but you can also make your own DIY elderberry syrup in an instant pot when the flu season comes in.
The Potential Health Benefits of Elderberry
Elderberry, also known as elder, is a family of flowering shrub species native to Europe and North America. The berries are dark in color, often black, blue, or purple. They have a tart flavor when they are used in wines, pies, jams, and sauces. In addition to syrups and lozenges, they can be sold as supplements, teas, and gummies.
Elderberries contain many nutrients and vitamins, including fiber, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, folate, iron, and antioxidants. Research has found that they may help treat colds and the flu; however, the studies are small and not entirely conclusive. A review from 2010 found that these berries can have antioxidant and antiviral properties although the authors added that more research is needed to verify these effects.
Another study found that 60 people who took 15 milliliters (ml) of elderberry syrup four times a day had their flu-like symptoms improve four days faster than those who took a placebo. Similarly, another study followed 32 people with similar symptoms who took lozenges with 175 milligrams (mg) of elderberry extract and reported an improvement in their symptoms. One study examined if elderberry extract could prevent people from having cold-like symptoms after air travel. People who took elderberry lozenges still experienced these symptoms but less severely and for less time than those who didn’t. 
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The Potential Risks
Although these studies are promising, they tend to use a small sample size and therefore require further research to verify these health benefits. So while elderberry syrups and the like could help with flu symptoms, they are not a substitute for a flu shot. Also, there has been no published research evaluating its potential effects against COVID-19; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission had taken action against companies who had marketed elderberry products as anti-coronavirus treatments. 
Because of this limited research, it’s not recommended for children or for those who are pregnant and nursing. There have been no reports about negative effects for these demographics but there hasn’t been enough clinical evidence to deem them safe over the long term. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before making DIY elderberry syrups or taking supplements if you are unsure if they are safe for you. 
Although elderberries are rich in nutrients, they can also be harmful. Raw elderberries, along with the seeds, leaves, and tree bark, are toxic and could lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea when consumed. There are 3 mg of cyanide in 100g of fresh berries, and 3–17 mg in 100g of the leaves. Fortunately, most species of berries are safe to eat after being cooked. Therefore, elderberry syrup, store-bought or DIY, is a safe way to reap these potential benefits, since the berries are removed during the straining process. The branches, leaves, and bark should not be included in cooking or juicing, or consumed in any way. 
DIY Elderberry Syrup Recipe
- 4 slices ginger root
- 1/2 lemon
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 6 cloves
- 1 cup dried elderberries
- 4 cups filtered or bottled water
- 1 cup raw honey
- Place the ginger, lemon, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and dried elderberries in the Instant Pot. Add the water.
- Cook on “manual” for 10 minutes on “high pressure”.
- Do a quick pressure release, remove the lid, and set to “saute”. Boil the syrup for 10 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by half.
- Pour the mixture through a strainer into a bowl. Mash the berries with a spatula until all the liquid is released. Discard the lemon remains and the berries. Keep in mind that dried elderberries are not safe to eat.
- When the syrup has cooled down to room temperature, mix in the raw honey.
- Keep the syrup in a tightly sealed container and store in the refrigerator for up to two months.
- Adults could take two teaspoons a day during the cold and flu season.
This recipe was made by Diana Johnson from Eating Richly. Check out her recipe for more tips and a video tutorial.
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Are there other Supplements for the Cold and Flu Season?
The best protective measures in the cold and flu season include washing your hands regularly, minimizing exposure to sick people, sleeping enough, drinking enough fluids, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress levels, and avoiding touching your face while out and about. But people can adhere to all of these methods and still get sick. Therefore, many turn to supplements to help support their immunity during these seasons. According to Examine.com. the following supplements may be helpful.
Vitamin C is typically the go-to supplement for preventing and treating colds. Taking it regularly could shorten a cold’s duration and lessen its symptoms. (However, taking it only when sick may not have this effect.) Vitamin D can also help support immunity, especially for those who are deficient; a large systematic review found that these supplements could help prevent upper respiratory infections. Zinc is also an important nutrient for immunity. Taking zinc supplements or lozenges at the beginning of a cold may help reduce its duration. However, zinc supplementation should not exceed 100 mg a day for up to two weeks. Remember, zinc is present in many foods and multivitamins as well.
Elderberry syrup and supplements have promising preliminary evidence, as does echinacea, probiotics, and Pelargonium sidoides. Of course, nothing can take the place of washing hands, getting enough sleep, etc. but supplements may help power through the upcoming cold and flu season. Since elderberry syrup can be pricey, making your own DIY version can provide the potential benefits without the extra costs. 
Keep Reading: The Top 10 Medicinal Plants and Herbs for Your Health
- “Health benefits of elderberry.” Medical News Today. Amanda Barrell. October 9, 2018
- “Elderberry.” NCCIH Clearinghouse. August 2020
- “Is Elderberry an Effective Treatment for Colds and the Flu?” Healthline. Carly Vandergriendt. February 3, 2021
- “Elderberry: Benefits and Dangers.” Healthline. Amy Richter, RD March 15, 2021
- “Which Supplements Can Help Against Colds And The Flu?” Examine. October 17, 2022