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Barberry

Botanical name: Berberis vulgaris

Photo

© Steven Foster

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.

Barberry has been used in connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual health concern for complete information):

Science Ratings Health Concerns
1Star

Chronic candidiasis

Diarrhea (berberine)

Indigestion

Infection

Parasites

Psoriasis

Vaginitis

3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

Historical or traditional use (may or may not be supported by scientific studies)

Traditionally, in European and American herbalism, barberry was used to treat a large number of conditions, particularly infections and stomach problems.1 It has also been used internally 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 related constituents (such as oxyacanthine) are antibacterial2 and have been shown to kill amoebae in a test tube study.3 Berberine inhibits bacteria from attaching to human cells, which helps prevent infection.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 may help reduce inflammation7 and is an antioxidant.8

The bitter compounds in barberry, including the alkaloids mentioned above, stimulate digestive function following meals.

How much is usually taken?

For digestive conditions, barberry is often combined with other bitter herbs, such as gentian, in tincture form. Such mixtures are taken 15 to 20 minutes before a meal, usually 2–5 ml each time. As a tincture, 2–3 ml of barberry can be taken three times per day. Standardized extracts containing 5–10% alkaloids, with a total of approximately 500 mg of berberine taken each day, are preferable for preventing infections. Standardized extracts of goldenseal are a more common source of berberine, since goldenseal contains a higher concentration of berberine than barberry. An ointment made from a 10% extract of barberry can be applied topically three times per day for psoriasis. A tea/infusion can be prepared using 2 grams of the herb in a cup of boiling water. This can be repeated two to three times daily.9

Are there any side effects or interactions?

Berberine has been reported to interfere with normal liver function in infants, raising a concern that it might worsen jaundice.10 For this reason, berberine-containing plants, including barberry, goldenseal, and Oregon grape should be used with caution during pregnancy and breast-feeding. Strong standardized extracts may cause stomach upset and should be used for no more than two weeks continuously. Other symptoms of excessive berberine intake include lethargy, nose bleed, skin and eye irritation, and kidney irritation.11

Are there any drug interactions?
Certain medicines may interact with barberry. Refer to drug interactions for a list of those medicines.

References:

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;15:1067–76.

3. Subbaiah TV, Amin AH. Effect of berberine sulphate on Entamoeba histolytica. Nature 1967;215:527–8.

4. Sun D, Courtney HS, Beachey EH. Berberine sulfate blocks adherence of Streptococcus pyogenes to epithelial cells, fibronectin, and hexadecane. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 1988;32:1370–4.

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;155:979–84.

6. Kumazawa Y, Itagaki A, Fukumoto M, et al. Activation of peritoneal macrophages by berberine-type alkaloids in terms of induction of cytostatic activity. Int J Immunopharmacol 1984;6:587–92.

7. Wong CW, Seow WK, O’Callaghan 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;36:112–8.

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;39:1673–8.

9. Gruenwald J, Brendler T, Jaenicke C, et al. (eds). PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics, 1998, 688–90.

10. Chan E. Displacement of bilirubin from albumin by berberine. Biol Neonate 1993;63:201–8.

11. Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, et al. (eds). The Complete Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Boston, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998, 309–10.

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