Elderberries feature anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may benefit a person’s gut lining. However, they may interact with medications that people take for ulcerative colitis. Therefore, doctors recommend exercising caution before consuming elderberries.

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects between 600,000–900,000 people in the United States. Some individuals with UC may be interested in complementary approaches to help manage their condition.

Elderberries could support the immune system, and retailers selling extracts of the fruit claim that they treat several health conditions.

This article discusses elderberry and its medicinal properties. It also explains how it may help UC and the potential risks of taking it with medication. Finally, it provides tips about consuming other types of berries with UC.

A collection of jars with elderberry jamShare on Pinterest
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Elderberry is the common name for a type of shrub. The black elderberry, Sambucus nigra, is the species people commonly use in herbal preparations.

However, these berries are toxic if people consume them raw. But they can pick ripe fruit and boil it to make extracts, syrups, or jellies.

Research indicates that Sambucus nigra contains several immune-modulating components, including:

  • anthocyanins
  • flavonols
  • phenolic acids

Additionally, elderberry extract has the following effects on the intestinal lining:

  • antioxidant effects against reactive oxygen species that damage the gut
  • anti-inflammatory properties
  • downregulates proinflammatory gene expression

A 2019 study suggests that anthocyanins may benefit UC, as they protect against inflammation and gut permeability and improve the microbiota.

Elderberry can interact with medication that doctors prescribe for UC. Therefore, it is essential to consult a doctor before consuming them when taking other drugs or supplements.

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation advises that elderberries stimulate the production of cytokines interleukin and tumor necrosis factor. Cytokines are proteins that white blood cells make to help regulate inflammation and fight off infections, which are essential roles in the immune system.

Other studies indicate that elderberry extracts increase proinflammatory cytokines, causing a shift in the immune response. For this reason, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation cautions that elderberries may reduce the effectiveness of immunosuppressant medications.

Immunosuppressants help suppress someone’s immune system. Examples of these medications include:

Biologic medications also have immunosuppressive effects. These medications include:

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation explains that doctors may prescribe immunosuppressants to induce UC remission or prevent relapse. However, elderberries may stimulate the immune system and counteract the effects of immunosuppressants. Therefore, people should seek advice before consuming elderberries or taking them as a supplement.

Research indicates that historically, people used all parts of the plant for herbal remedies to apply topically for issues such as wounds, sprains, or bruises. In traditional medicine, people have used flowers to reduce bleeding, diarrhea, and congestion.

Additional research also promotes elderberry as a dietary supplement for colds, flu, and COVID-19. However, there is currently insufficient evidence to support its use.

In addition, 2022 research suggests that the berries of the black elder have the following properties:

  • antiviral
  • antioxidant
  • immune-boosting
  • antidiabetic
  • antitumor
  • antidepressant

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cautions that raw, unripe elderberries and other parts of the plant, such as the leaves and stem, contain toxic substances. These substances include the compound sambunigrin. If people eat them, they may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Furthermore, consuming large quantities of these plant parts may cause serious illness.

People can cook the berries to make:

  • wine
  • jam or chutney
  • syrup
  • pies or crumbles
  • tinctures
  • teas

In addition, they can use elderberry flowers to make:

  • tea
  • cordial
  • pancakes or fritters
  • ice cream
  • kombucha
  • topical salves

People should boil berries properly and strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer. They can then reduce the liquid by simmering it with sugar and spices, such as cinnamon and ginger, to make a syrup.

Elderberry supplements

Retailers sell elderberry supplements in tablet, syrup, and tincture forms. One such popular supplement is Sambucol. Manufacturers usually market elderberries for immune support.

Learn more about the best elderberry supplements.

Experts advise that people with UC eat a well-balanced diet. The symptoms of UC may cause a person to lose their appetite and eat less, so someone should speak with their doctor about what is best to eat. Berries can form part of a balanced diet if an individual with UC can tolerate them.

Studies suggest that several other berries have suitable amounts of anthocyanins that may have an anti-inflammatory effect on the intestines. These include:

However, fruits with skin and seeds can contain insoluble fiber that may be hard to digest. Therefore, berries may trigger a flare of symptoms in some people with UC.

A person can speak with their doctor or dietitian to determine which foods they can tolerate.

Studies suggest that elderberries may have immune-boosting properties and act as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Research has demonstrated that elderberries may have protective effects on the intestinal tracts of people with UC.

However, because elderberries act on the immune system, they may not be suitable for people with immune conditions, particularly if they take immunosuppressants. Therefore, a person should check with their doctor before consuming elderberry or taking it as a supplement.