Barberry (Berberis vulgaris L.)

Barberry (Berberis vulgaris L.)

Berberidaceae Barberry family

Parts used and where grown: The root and stem bark contain the medicinally active components of barberry. The barberry bush also produces small red berries. Although this particular species is native to Europe, it now also grows throughout North America. A closely related species, Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), is native to North America.

In what conditions might barberry be supportive?

Â¥ gastritis

Â¥ indigestion

Â¥ psoriasis

Â¥ vaginitis

Historical or traditional use: Traditionally, barberry was used to treat a large number of conditions in European and American herbalism, particularly infections and stomach problems.1 There is also a history of its internal use to treat skin conditions.

Active constituents: The alkaloid berberine receives the most research and widest acclaim as the active component of barberry and its relatives. Berberine is also a key constituent of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Berberine and its cousins (such as oxyacanthine) are antibacterial2 and also kill ameba in test tubes.3 Berberine inhibits bacteria from attaching to human cells, which helps prevent an infection from occurring.4 This compound treats diarrhea caused by bacteria, such as E. coli.5 Berberine also stimulates some immune system cells to function better.6 Berbamine is another alkaloid found in barberry. It helps reduce inflammation7 and is an antioxidant.8

Patients with psoriasis using a topical ointment of Oregon grape, which is very similar to barberry, showed significant improvement of symptoms.9 The bitter compounds in barberry, including the alkaloids mentioned above, stimulate digestive function.

How much should I take? For digestive conditions, barberry is often combined with other bitter herbs, such as gentian in tincture form. Such mixtures are taken fifteen to twenty minutes before a meal, usually 2&endash;5 ml each time. As a tincture, 2&endash;3 ml of barberry can be taken three times per day. Standardized extracts containing 5&endash;10% alkaloids are preferably for the prevention of infections. A total of approximately 500 mg of berberine each day should be taken. Standardized goldenseal extracts are a more common source of berberine, since it contains a higher concentration of this compound compared to barberry. An ointment made from a 10% extract of barberry can be applied topically three times per day.

Are there any side effects or interactions? Berberine alone has been reported to interfere with normal bilirubin metabolism in infants, raising a concern that it might worsen jaundice.10 For this reason, berberine-containing plants, including barberry and goldenseal, should be used with caution in pregnancy and breast-feeding. Strong standardized extracts may cause stomach upset and should be used for no more than two weeks continuously.


1. Duke JA. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1985, 78.
2. Amin AH, Subbaiah TV, Abbasi KM. Berberine sulfate: Antimicrobial activity, bioassay and mode of action. Can J Microbiol 1969;15:1067&endash;76.
3. Subbaiah TV, Amin AH. Effect of berberine sulphate on Entamoeba histolytica. Nature 1967;215(100):527-28.
4. Sun D, Courtney HS, Beachey EH. Berberine sulfate blocks adherence of Streptococcus pyogenes to epithelial cells, fibronectin, and hexadecane. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 1988;32(9):1370&endash;74.
5. Rabbani GH, Butler T, Knight J, et al. Randomized controlled trial of berberine sulfate therapy for diarrhea due to enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli and Vibrio cholerae. J Infect Dis 1987;155(5):979&endash;84.
6. Kumazawa Y et al. Activation of peritoneal macrophages by berberine-type alkaloids in terms of induction of cytostatic activity. Int J Immunopharmacol 1984;6:587&endash;92.
7. Wong CW, Seow WK, OÕCallaghan JW, Thong YH. Comparative effects of tetrandrine and berbamine on subcutaneous air pouch inflammation induced by interleukin-1, tumour necrosis factor and platelet-activating factor. Agents Actions 1992;36(1&endash;2):112&endash;18.
8. Ju HS, Li XJ, Zhao BL, et al. Scavenging effect of berbamine on active oxygen radicals in phorbol ester-stimulated human polymorphonuclear leukocytes. Biochem Pharmacol 1990;39(11):1673&endash;78.
9. Wiesenauer M, Lüdtke R. Mahonia aquifolium in patients with psoriasis vulgarisÑan intraindividual study. Phytomed 1996;3:231&endash;35.
10. Chan E. Displacement of bilirubin from albumin by berberine. Biol Neonate 1993;63:201&endash;8.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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