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What happens when hedgerow herbal knowledge meets microbiome science?

I attribute the high levels of diversity in my gut bacterial profile in part to my love of foraging wild foods, which means my diet is very diverse and full of plant-based nutrients that nourish my gut microbiome. Our hedgerows contain some potent microbiome boosters!

At this time of year, the hedgerows are full of blackberries and elderberries – two foods that contain especially high levels of a group of nutrients called polyphenols. Why is this important for your microbiome health? Polyphenols pass through our gut undigested, until they reach the large intestine where they feed certain bacteria, which in turn have a beneficial effect on our health. 

Elderberries come top as the richest food source of polyphenols Researchers found elderberries have the highest polyphenol content by serving size in a 2010 study that tested 100 different foods. Blackberries come top tenth in polyphenol content by serve. While cloves and other spices have higher polyphenol content by weight, we eat smaller amounts of them, so serving size is important for assessing polyphenol content of foods in your diet. I made an infosheet for my clients wanting to know which foods are high in polyphenols: Top polyphenol-rich foods, which you can download here.

Given their high polyphenol content, elderberries and blackberries are likely to nourish a range of beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacilli, Bifidobacterium and Faecalibacterium species. Anecdotal evidence suggests that elderberries are especially effective in raising levels of Akkermansia, a bacterium that is important for gut integrity, blood sugar regulation and a healthy weight. If your Microbiome Analysis results show Akkermansia levels are high (as can be the case with certain conditions, including Multiple Sclerosis), then you may want to avoid elderberries. However if they’re low (as is most commonly the case) then this year’s elderberries may give them a welcome boost!

Interestingly some of the long-known medicinal properties of elderberries, including cold and flu remedies, may well be rooted in how they affect our gut microbiome, which plays a central role in our immunity.

There are some great recipes for elderberries

Correct identification is of course essential to safe foraging – there are poisonous berries in our hedgerows after all. If you’re confident in identifying elderberries, then do make sure you cook them for at least 15 minutes, and remove stalks or leaves as these can cause nausea or vomiting. A fork is a great way to remove the berries from the stalks (you don’t need to worry about the tiniest stalks).

Elderberries are great in blackberry and apple pie, as elderberry syrup that can be frozen in ice cube trays, or as a ketchup (Pontack sauce) in savoury dishes. For another seasonal polyphenol boost, make a nut roast to eat with the Pontack sauce and keep the skins on hazelnuts and almonds. A handful of blackberries is also a delicious, microbiome-boosting addition to a nut roast recipe!

For those of you who can’t find elderberries or aren’t confident in identification, you can buy elderberry syrups. I like this one, as it has no added sugar.

Please note: I do not accept commission or affiliate fees from any probiotics or prebiotics I prescribe, so that clients can be confident I have no financial interests in making my recommendations. I pass these fees onto my clients as discounts, so clients who have my discount code for Natural Dispensary receive a 25% discount when ordering this elderberry syrup.

References and further reading

Viola Sampson BSc RCST is a Microbiome Analyst practising in London, UK and online. For consultations, please book online.

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