Medicinal use of barberry dates as far back as ancient Egypt, when pharaohs
and queens took it with fennel seed to ward off the plague. In traditional folk
medicine, barberry has been used to treat diarrhea, reduce fever, improve
appetite, relieve upset stomach, and promote vigor as well as a sense of
well-being. Today, it is widely used for medicinal purposes in Iran, including
for biliary disorders (such as gallbladder disease) and heartburn.
Barberry and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) have very similar
therapeutic uses because both herbs contain active substances called berberine
alkaloids. These substances have been shown to combat infection and bacteria,
stimulate the activity of the immune system, and lower fever.
Infection and Skin disorders For this reason, barberry is used
to ease inflammation and infection of the urinary, gastrointestinal, and
respiratory tracts (such as pharyngitis [sore throat], sinusitis, rhinitis
[nasal congestion], bronchitis and, traditionally, tuberculosis) as well as
candida (yeast) infections of the skin or vagina. Barberry extract may also
improve symptoms of certain skin conditions including psoriasis, but further
studies are needed to confirm these findings.
Diarrhea Barberry may also be an effective treatment for
diarrhea (including traveler's diarrhea and diarrhea caused by food poisoning).
A few studies have suggested that barberry improves symptoms faster than
antibiotics but may be less effective than the drugs in clearing bacterial
organisms out of the intestines. Because of the serious consequences associated
with bacterial diarrhea, if barberry is used to ease symptoms, it is best to
take the herb along with standard antibiotic therapy for this condition.
Barberry is a shrub with gray, thorny branches that can grow to about nine
feet in height. Bright yellow flowers bloom between the months of April and June
and become dark, drooping bunches of red berries in the fall. The ripe berries
can be used to make jam. Barberries are sourer but less bitter than cranberries.
Both the berries and the bark are used for medicinal purposes.
What's It Made Of?
The stem, root bark, and fruit of barberry contain chemicals called
isoquinoline alkaloids (berberine is a type of isoquinoline alkaloid), which are
the main active ingredients of barberry. Laboratory studies suggest that these
substances have antimicrobial (for example, antibacterial and antiparasitic),
anti-inflammatory, immune-stimulant, fever reducing, hypotensive (causing a
reduction in blood pressure), sedative, anticonvulsant, and smooth muscle
effects. Smooth muscles line the gastrointestinal tract; therefore, this last
effect may help improve digestion and reduce stomach pain.
Barberry is available in capsules, fluid extracts, tinctures, and as a
topical ointment. Dried roots of barberry can also be used in tea. Barberry
extracts are standardized to contain 8% to 12% isoquinoline alkaloids.
How to Take It
There are no known scientific reports on the pediatric use of barberry.
However, many professional herbalists use barberry to reduce diarrhea in
children. For this reason, barberry should be used with caution in children and
only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Barberry (as a single herb) should not be taken for more than five to seven
days, but it may be used for longer periods if taken in combination with other
herbs recommended by a qualified healthcare practitioner. Three to five days is
generally sufficient for an upset stomach.
For sore throats, bladder infections, diarrhea, bronchitis, or yeast
Tea: 2 to 4 grams of dried root steeped or 1 to 2 tsp of whole or
crushed berries steeped in 150 mL (approximately 2/3 of a cup) of hot water for
10 to 15 minutes three times daily
Tincture: 3 to 6 mL (1/2 to 1 1/2 tsp three times daily)
Dry extracts: 250 to 500 milligrams three times daily
For skin disorders: 10% extract of barberry in ointment, applied to
the skin three times daily
It is important to remember that some infections can be very dangerous if not
treated with standard antibiotics. Barberry should not be taken in place of a
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and
treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger
side effects and that can interact with other herbs, supplements, or
medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the
supervision of a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of botanical
Those using normal and appropriate doses of barberry do not generally report
side effects. Cases of nosebleeds and vomiting have been reported with extremely
high doses of this herb.
Pregnant women should not take barberry because it may cause uterine
contractions and trigger miscarriage.
There are no known scientific reports of interactions between barberry and
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Kaneda Y, Torii M, Tanaka T, Aikawa M. In vitro effects of berberine sulphate
on the growth and structure of Entamoeba histolytica, Giardia
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trial of berberine sulfate therapy for diarrhea due to enterotoxigenic
Escherichia coli and Vibrio cholerae. J Infect Dis. 1987
Shamsa F, Ahamadiani A, Khosrokhavar R. Antihisminic and anticholinergic
activity of barberry fruit (Berberis vulgaris) in the guinea-pig ileum.
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Review Date: April 2002
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD,
Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University
and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; Gary Kracoff, RPh
(Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Johnson Drugs, Natick, MA; Steven
Ottariono, RPh (Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Veteran's
Administrative Hospital, Londonderry, NH; R. Lynn Shumake, PD, Director,
Alternative Medicine Apothecary, Blue Mountain Apothecary & Healing Arts,
University of Maryland Medical Center, Glenwood, MD; David Winston, Herbalist
(April 1999), Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc., Washington, NJ; Tom Wolfe, P.AHG
(April 1999), Smile Herb Shop, College Park, MD. All interaction sections have
also been reviewed by a team of experts including Joseph Lamb, MD (July 2000),
The Integrative Medicine Works, Alexandria, VA;Enrico Liva, ND, RPh (August
2000), Vital Nutrients, Middletown, CT; Brian T Sanderoff, PD, BS in Pharmacy
(March 2000), Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Maryland School of
Pharmacy; President, Your Prescription for Health, Owings Mills, MD; Ira Zunin,
MD, MPH, MBA (July 2000), President and Chairman, Hawaii State Consortium for
Integrative Medicine, Honolulu, HI.
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of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage
to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or
otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents
of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds
currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a
guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information
provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare
practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts)
regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications
before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed