Botanical name: Berberis vulgaris
© 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):
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
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
Certain medicines may interact with barberry. Refer to drug interactions for a list of those medicines.
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
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
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
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.