It is tempting to reach for natural remedies when cold, flu, or allergy season beckons. And when you're pregnant, something as seemingly insignificant as a stuffy nose can feel like a big deal when you're limited on what you can safely take to remedy the symptom.
Many parents have touted the benefits of elderberry, or Sambucus nigra, which comes from the berries of a tree native to Europe, and is prepared in several ways, including pills, lozenges, syrups, and gummies. This natural herb is widely considered a gentle yet effective remedy that is now featured on grocery stores and pharmacy shelves as a safe alternative to harsher medicines.
But how effective—and safe—is elderberry, and is it safe to take if you're pregnant?
What the Science Says
Elderberries do have some health benefits. “They have antibacterial, antiviral, and cytokines-producing properties, all of which boost the immune system,” says Kecia Gaither, M.D., M.P.H., double board-certified in OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine. “This helps fight cold and flu viruses.” Elderberries also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, are high in fiber, and can even help decrease “bad” cholesterol in the body, adds Dr. Gaither.
But research is limited on the safety of elderberry in pregnancy. “There is not enough sufficient data on the use of elderberry during pregnancy or lactation,” says Shuhan He, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “One study reported gastrointestinal (GI) distress in pregnant women taking elderberry. However, recognize that everybody’s body reacts differently, and many people experience no side effects at all.”
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In another study, researchers analyzed 1,187 records that included five randomized clinical trials to see if elderberry is an effective medicine for preventing and treating viral respiratory illnesses (like cold and flu). Unfortunately, there was no evidence that elderberry could prevent or stop the viruses. In some instances, elderberry was able to quicken the duration of viral infections. However, the evidence there is weak and needs more research.
It may be a safer option than some over-the-counter or prescription drugs, but that still doesn’t guarantee it won’t have adverse effects, says holistic wellness practitioner Audrey Christie, MSN, RN, CCMA. “There haven’t been any adverse events reported with elderberry extract, but it is important to use caution,” says Christie.
And be warned: Unripened elderberries are toxic and should be avoided, says. Dr. Gaither. The same goes for preparations made from the plant’s bark, leaves, or flower, due to the risk of poisoning.
Elderberry Is Not FDA-Approved
Another big drawback: Elderberry is regulated as an herbal supplement and is not a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA doesn’t have to approve a supplement before it goes on sale, and it’s up to the company that manufactures it to label it properly and ensure its safety. Only after it’s on the market can the FDA deem a supplement unsafe.
That’s why it’s essential to be a savvy consumer during pregnancy and even after when purchasing and taking herbal supplements. Only buy from companies you trust and those that follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), and it’s best to avoid purchasing homemade preparations.
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So elderberry may not be the magical pregnancy cure-all you're looking for. Don't stress. Experts note other ways to stay healthy during pregnancy. “The foundational pieces of a good immune system no matter your age are sleep, plenty of whole plant food, stress mitigation, and getting vitamin D,” says Christie.
And don't forget good old soap and water. “Keeping up good hand hygiene is key,” notes Dr. He.
The Bottom Line
There isn't enough research to guarantee that elderberry is safe during pregnancy. As with any supplement consumed during pregnancy, it's important to speak to your physician first.