Elderberry and Immunity: Why Balance is the Best Approach
Elderberries have a centuries-old history of use, including safe, balanced immune support for healthy individuals, without over-activating the immune system. Here's how it works.
Immune support is complicated, and there is such a thing as too much immune boosting. With increasing attention on supplements for immunity, concerns have been raised about the potential for activating the immune response in an abnormally aggressive, and potentially harmful, manner. If you’re concerned, you’ll be happy to know: a number of studies point to elderberry fruit juice concentrate as both a safe and effective way to support balanced immune response.*
Elderberries, the dark purple berries from the European elder, have a centuries-old history of use. The berries are naturally rich in polyphenols—potent compounds responsible for their deep purple hue, as well as significant health benefits like antioxidant activity, cardiovascular support and normal blood sugar balance. Elderberries have been shown to offer safe, balanced immune support without over-activating the immune system.
Here’s how it works: the immune system is like an army, designed to protect the body against threats and mobilizing its troops—immune cells—when tissue has been injured or a foreign invader is detected. When immune cells identify a problem, they send out signals to step up activity—a stage called “recruitment.” Like recruiting soldiers to battle, the immune system deploys additional troops (immune cells) to the area, where they destroy the threat and clean up damaged tissue. Once the problem has been contained, immune cells send signals that all is well and the immune system can stand down to a watchful waiting phase.
But in unusual circumstances, the immune system’s feedback mechanism can falter. For example, if infection coupled with tissue destruction is significant, immune cells step up their recruitment signals to increase repair mechanisms, leading to an avalanche of messenger molecules known as cytokines and chemokines. This allows the immune system’s white blood cells to move around more easily, hone in on problematic locations, and impact things like swelling and temperature regulation. But an overproduction and excess release of cytokines—called a “cytokine storm”—can result in uncontrolled swelling, high fever and organ damage, and may be fatal.
So, rather than just stimulate immune activity, it’s also important to modulate—a process that involves bringing immune cells back into balance. The complex process of immune modulation requires a number of different compounds that allow immune cells to be recruited, respond properly, and reduce cytokine and chemokine signaling to return to a balanced state.
Related: 7 Immune-Boosting Foods to Get You Through Cold & Flu Season
Research on elderberry suggests it’s highly supportive of this kind of balanced immune response—of immune system balance—but the form is important. A number of different preparations have been studied, including elderberry juice concentrate, elderberry extract and elderberry flower, and they differ in their actions (elderberry flower functions very differently than the berry juice or the extract and can’t be considered the same as the berry). It’s also important to know elderberry extract is different than elderberry juice concentrate; research on the juice concentrate and the extract shows some overlap, and some distinct differences in activity. Both elderberry extract and elderberry juice concentrate appear to increase the immune system’s ability to function strongly. However, research suggests the juice concentrate increases immune activity while also supporting modulation, allowing the immune system to decrease its excitatory state and return to a state of watchful waiting.
In studies, this return to balance was most notable in how people felt after taking elderberry juice concentrate. When our immune systems are strongly engaged, those cytokines that make it work so hard also create strong feelings of discomfort. In a randomized, double-blind study, elderberry juice reduced discomforts associated with a strongly engaged immune response by an average of four days earlier than in those who received the placebo—allowing the body to return to a more balanced state of physical sensations. These findings from modern research, along with centuries of traditional use, make it clear: elderberry juice concentrate is a safe and effective way to both engage and balance your immune system.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
**If you or a loved one has a compromised immune response or autoimmune condition please work with a qualified integrative health care practitioner before using any substance that impacts the immune response.
Elderberry-Ginger Shrub Recipe
This classic shrub—a tart-sweet drink made with herbs and vinegar—is an invigorating tonic served on its own, or mixed with sparkling water for a bright, fizzy cocktail alternative. Raw apple cider vinegar contains beneficial bacteria, and ginger boosts digestion. Look for dried elderberries at herbal markets or most natural foods grocers. You can also swap honey for sugar; use raw, unfiltered honey, and don’t heat it; add it to the mixture when you add the vinegar.
- 1 cup dried elderberries
- 2 cups filtered water1/2 to 1 cup organic cane sugar
- 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, sliced
1. Combine elderberries, water, sugar and ginger root in a medium pan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until liquid is reduced.
2. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a heat-safe glass jar, pressing on berries to extract as much juice as possible. Add vinegar, seal lid tightly, and shake to combine. Refrigerate until cold.
3. Serve, chilled, in small (one- to two-ounce) glasses, or in taller glasses with ice and sparkling water. Store, refrigerated, for up to one week.