FWD 2 HerbalGram: Health Benefits Boost Elderberry

Issue: 50 Page: 55

Health Benefits Boost Elderberry

by Chris Kilham

HerbalGram. 200050:55 American Botanical Council

An old Austrian saying, "Tip your hat to the elder," expresses the respect with which Europeans have long regarded the elder tree (Sambucus nigra L., Caprifoliaceae) and its dark purple berries. Elderberries have been employed in European folk medicine since antiquity for a plethora of maladies, from arthritis and asthma to colds and constipation. In 400 B.C.E. Hippocrates referred to the elder tree as his "medicine chest." Other distinguished classical healers including Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Galen, also considered the elder and its berries one of nature’s greatest healing plants.1 In southern Italy, a decoction made by boiling fresh elderberries in water is a folk remedy for stimulating bowel function.2 In southeastern France a decoction of the berries has been used to promote healthy stomach function.3 And in Jordan, decoctions of elderberries have been employed for diuretic and anti-rheumatic

Increased growth and production

Austria is the world’s primary elderberry producing country, and their Haschberg variety of elder produces a high yield of sweet, richly purple berries. The epicenter of the booming Austrian elderberry industry, and the sponsor of my research in Europe, is the Beerenfrost Co-op in Thalhammerstrasse, directed by Kurt Kaufmann. A virtually tireless elderberry proponent, Kaufman has organized 1,000 Austrian growers into an efficient co-op, with rigid schedules for harvesting, trucking and cooling berries. Kaufmann also designed and built the immense non-profit Beerenfrost berry freezing facility, where elderberries are cooled immediately after harvest. In conversation while touring the facility, Kaufmann described the tricky timing of harvesting and cooling. "In September at harvest, the elderberries must be cooled immediately, or they spoil. Here at Beerenfrost elderberries are chilled to -20 degrees Celsius in less than 24 hours." He adds, "We can handle about 600 tons per day, but in once 1998 we took in 1,600 tons in 24 hours."

Products on display at Beerenfrost facilities show that Haschberg elderberries are used in juices, jams, fruit yogurts, wines and nutraceutical supplements. According to Kaufmann, increased demand for elderberry in the food and nutraceutical sectors has been a boon to Austrian growers. At 8,000 tons of harvested elderberry in 2000, Austria’s commercial production has doubled since 1995.

Elder’s Statesman

In Karlstein, Austria at the Paracelsus House nature cure center, Father Hermann Josef Weidinger and 37 assistants prepare and prescribe herbal remedies for dozens of health conditions. The 82-year-old Austrian Catholic priest and herbal healer regards elderberry with the same reverence as Hippocrates. Before he discusses their healing powers, he serves tall glasses of imponderably dark purple elder juice. "This is the very best thing for your health," he comments with a kind and knowing smile.

Father Wei-dinger has published more than a dozen books on natural therapies, and is especially impassioned about elderberry. "Elderberry cleanses the digestive system and promotes healthy elimination. This is most essential to good health." Father Weidinger believes that elderberry protects the body from serious diseases, and enhances both the body and mind. "Elderberry reduces inflammation and relieves the body of impurities. In this manner it also balances the emotions." Weidinger employs concentrated elderberry juice as a mainstay in his herbal cleansing and healing programs, and claims that the juice has helped thousands. "I am convinced that elderberry juice helps to prevent many serious diseases," he says. In conversations, both Kurt Kafmann and Austria’s largest elderberry grower Josef Holler credit Father Weidinger as a key force in popularizing elderberry for improved health.

Potent Purple Pigments

Folk healers like Father Weidinger aren’t the only advocates of elderberry. Analytical research conducted in Europe shows that elderberries are concentrated sources of anthocyanins, potent purple pigments that appear to benefit health in several ways. Ongoing research in Europe is focusing on these anthocyanins to determine what other health-imbuing powers they may possess, and how they work.

Antioxidant activity. In Karlsruhe at Germany’s Bundesforschungsanstalt research center for food, scientists conduct studies on dietary agents that can reduce oxidation and protect cells. According to research led by the center’s director Dr. Gerhard Rechkemmer, anthocyanins found in elderberries possess appreciably more antioxidant capacity than either Trolox (antioxidant, Aldrich Chemical Co., Milwaukee, WI) or vitamin C.5 The work conducted at Bundesforschungsanstalt supports previous research conducted in Graz, Austria showing that anthocyanins possess significant free radical scavenging capacity.6

Immune enhancement. Rechkemmer’s investigations also show that elderberry anthocyanins enhance immune function by boosting the production of cytokines.7 These unique proteins act as messengers in the immune system to help regulate immune response, thus helping to defend the body against disease. When asked if further research will reveal additional health benefits, Rechkemmer responded, "I believe so. But the anthocyanins are extremely hard to track in blood plasma, so we do not know exactly what they are doing in the body. We must discover their mode of action and go beyond belief to certain knowledge." He added that discoveries at the center help to fashion national food policy in Germany. If elderberry studies continue to be positive, Rechkemmer says that he will recommend increased intake of the berries and their juice.

Cardiovascular protection. At the scientific heart of the elderberry boom, Doctors Werner Pfannhauser and Michael Murkovic at Austria’s University of Graz research the biological activity of elderberry anthocyanins. Their studies show that elderberry anthocyanins are absorbed into plasma and possess in vitro antioxidant activity.8 These findings corroborate the work of Cao and Prior at Tufts University, who have tracked anthocyanins in human plasma after ingestion.9 Pfannhauser and Murkovic have further found that elderberry extract reduces oxidation of LDL cholesterol.6 While cholesterol is an essential component manufactured in the liver, oxidation of LDL cholesterol is implicated in atherogenesis, thus contributing to cardiovascular disease, especially heart attacks and strokes. Both researchers express optimism that elderberry and its extracts may be used for cardioprotective purposes in the future. Additional research conducted at Tufts University shows that elderberry anthocyanins protect vascular epithelial cells against oxidative insult, thereby helping to prevent changes in these cells which are associated with vascular disease.10

Anti-viral activity. An oft-cited Israeli study on the anti-viral activity of elderberry extract found that in vitro elderberry extract reduced hemagglutination of red blood cells and inhibited replication of a number of strains of influenza A and B in cell cultures.11 In the same paper, administration of elderberry extract to 27 patients with influenza, shortened the duration of flu symptoms. In a Swiss study, elderberry extract inhibited replication of avian influenza virus in a human breast cancer cell line.12 And in vitro studies conducted by the Southern Research Institute using elderberry extracts from Artemis International showed inhibition of herpes virus in cell cultures.13

Stress Reduction. Of all discoveries related to elderberry, the most surprising is the apparent capacity of elderbery and its anthocyanin-rich extract to reduce stress. This effect was discovered by Austrian endocrinologist Dr. Sepp Porta, who conducted stress studies using elderberry concentrate on a group of volunteers.14 He described this discovery, "We gave these people the elderberry for only 10 days. We put them through typical stress tests, all the usual physical challenges, and the results were so remarkable, I checked them over and over." In the study, various bio-markers of stress, including glucose, magnesium and other plasma chemical levels, were analyzed. "What we found," he said, "was that elderberry has this extraordinary effect for reducing stress." Most notably, oral ingestion of elderberry extract resulted in increased glucose uptake, a pointed fall in ionized magnesium, and a significant increase in basal granulocytes. Porta also found that daily intake of elderberry extract significantly shortened recovery time from physical exertion.

Dr. Porta’s research into the stress-reducing effects of elderberry has attracted strong interest on the part of the U.S. Air Force. In a novel collaboration, cadets on loan now work with Dr. Porta to conduct follow-up tests, process data, and advance his findings. Dr. David Westmoreland of the U.S. Air Force Academy, commented that if elderberry is as potent a stress buster as it appears, it could be valuable to jet pilots whose stress load is daunting.

As word of positive research findings spreads into the trade and popular media, the status of elderberry continues to rise. Kurt Kaufmann of Beerenfrost said that health findings have fueled significant interest in elderberry from the food and beverage sector. "Companies want to sell healthy products, especially if they taste good. It’s a good thing for everybody."

Chris Kilham is a consultant and author of several books, including Tales From The Medicine Trail, published by Rodale Press.


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