A lot of people reach for elderberry at the first sign of an immune challenge, or even take it on the regular to fend off the nasties once the weather turns cold. We’re big fans of the stuff ourselves. But in recent years, there’s been some concern that elderberry could cause a cytokine storm — a harmful overactivation of the immune system.
Is this a valid concern. Or much ado about nothing?
What Are Cytokines?
Cytokines are chemical messengers of the immune system. Some promote inflammation, while others tamp it down, depending on the body’s current needs.
Inflammation is a double-edged sword. A little is actually a good thing as a short-term response to an immune threat. That’s because inflammation increases blood flow and brings immune cells to the site of battle. But too much inflammation, or inflammation that becomes ongoing, can damage the body.
What is a Cytokine Storm?
In short, a cytokine storm is when good cytokines go bad. While they mean well, they go overboard in fighting an immune threat, creating out-of-control inflammation that can cause tissue damage. In the context of a respiratory challenge, the lungs are particularly vulnerable to damage from a cytokine storm.
In 2001, a test tube study showed elderberry increases inflammatory cytokines in blood drawn from healthy volunteers. This finding made some people wonder if the herb might contribute to a cytokine storm.
Does Elderberry Cause a Cytokine Storm?
Several herbalists have recently weighed in, saying no, elderberry won’t cause a cytokine storm. Dr. Zayra Rubin, physician and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, points out that:
- There have been no documented cases of elderberry causing a cytokine storm in human subjects.
- Raising cytokines in healthy people can be an adaptive response to an immune threat.
- The cytokines that elderberry elevates are not the same ones that have caused cytokine storms in respiratory patients.
- Elderberry’s antioxidant properties may actually help maintain balance in this situation.
So far, emerging research backs up this view. A 2021 review of eight studies on elderberry concluded “there is no evidence that it overstimulates the immune system.” That’s a relief, but frankly, not a surprise! Of course, as with any herb, elderberry may be taken proactively or at the first signs of immune distress but should not be used for serious illness.
Does Elderberry Work?
Okay, so we can rest easy that elderberry does NOT cause a cytokine storm. The next question is: Does it actually work to boost immune response? The answer is a definitive YES!
- In one study from Norway, 60 people who were already under the weather took elderberry or a placebo. The lucky folks who got elderberry were on their feet in 2-4 days — 50 percent faster than those who got the sugar pill.
- Have you ever noticed how often you feel crummy after flying? A clever study followed 312 air passengers. One group took elderberry (starting 10 days before their flight and continuing for 4-5 days after arrival.) The other group got a placebo. Of the flyers who did succumb, the ones who took elderberry experienced less discomfort and recovered more quickly.
- A 2019 review of four studies, enrolling 180 volunteers found elderberry was an effective and safe way to support upper respiratory health.
As You Like It
Enjoy your elderberry and have a healthy fall! Use promo code ELDERBERRY15 for 15% off Flora’s Elderberry products now through September 27, 2022.
 Mehta P, et al. The Lancet. 2020 Mar 28;395(10229):1033-34. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30628-0/fulltext
 Rubin Z. Wild Lilac Wellness blog. 2020 Jun 19. https://www.wildlilacwellness.com/blog-1/blog-post-elderberry-and-coronavirus
 Wieldand LS, et al. BMC Complement Med Ther. 2021;21:112. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8026097/#:~:text=Elderberry%20has%20traditionally%20been%20used,risk%20of%20'cytokine%20storm
 Tiralongo E, Wee SS, Lea RA. Nutrients. 2016 Apr;8(4):182. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4848651/
 Hawkins J, et al. Complement Ther Med. 2019 Feb;42:361-65.