Herbal Medicine: Barberry- an Antimicrobial Bitter Tonic

barberry herbal medicine gut health parasites

Learning herbal medicine you come across many many different plants. One that I frequently read about in my studies is Berberis vulgaris. Known as barberry this plant is frequently used for it’s antimicrobial and bile discharging/stimulating (cholagogic) properties.

This article will cover the parts of the plant used, climate it can be grown in and the actions, indications and contraindications for use.  

Herbal Uses For Barberry

Researching barberry it is clear that it has become a useful plant where it has naturalised. In the Principles and Practices of Phytochemistry Mills and Bones list many of it’s non medicinal uses including

  • Fine woodworking
  • Used as a dye for clothing, leather and even hair!
  • Jam making from the fresh fruit

The bark of Barberry, particularly of the roots and the stem are used by herbalists for medicine making.

Looking to the wisdom tradition’s usage of Berberis vulgaris Medical Herbalist author David Hoffman lists the traditional application for

“correcting liver function and promoting bile flow”

There is even some evidence that Berberis berries were used by the ancient Egyptians along with fennel seeds to treat fevers (2).

Actions listed from a number of sources include

  • Cholagogue – helps to stimulate bile flow and discharge – Can be very helpful in parasitic infections
  • Hepatic – aids or improves liver function
  • Laxative
  • Antimicrobial
  • Antiemetic – helps to relieve nausea and vomiting

Phytochemicals Found in Barberry

This is where it gets interesting. Barberry contains a number of different alkaloids including the popular berberine as well as berbamine.

Berberine is found in a number of different plants used by herbalists around the world including the very popular and endangered Hydrastis canadensis or goldenseal, Mahonia aquifolium, Oregon grape and Coptis chinensis, Chinese Goldthread.

Scientific Findings for Berberis vulgaris

For a herbal medicine berberine and berberine containing plants have been well researched and the scientific literature is full of information.

One double blinded randomised control trial looked at the difference between an aqueous extract of barberry fruits and a placebo (in this case lactose) for the treatment of acne vulgaris. Over the four week trial the group receiving the barberry extract had significant improvements in their acne presentation while the placebo group didn’t.

What to make of this study? Hoffman outlines the use of Berberis vulgaris as a bitter tonic that can both strengthen and cleanse the system in weak or debilitated people and that it works on the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract.

Perhaps this is another gut-skin axis connection in hiding. Improve the gut, improve the skin. As within so without.

Antoher paper, looking to review the literature on berberine and barberry in general, noted a number of different trials that demonstrated it’s effectiveness at lowering blood sugar levels, particularly in cases of blood sugar dysregulation. So far many of the studies cited were animal based so we can’t draw any real conclusions yet but it sounds promising.

Finally a monograph published by Thorne outlined the findings from a number of different studies on berberine. They noted a number of different findings including

  • Berberines ability to inhibit or reduce bacterial diarrhea
  • It’s ability to improve a number of different cardiovascular markers (blood pressure, cardiac contractility ect)
  • Immune stimulating
  • Anti inflammatory (in vitro study)

Another focus of the monograph was on intestinal parasites. According to the paper berberine has been shown to inhibit the growth of a number of different parasites including

  • Giardia lamblia
  • Entamoeba histolytica
  • Trichomonas vaginalis
  • Leishmania donovani

Safety, Dosage and Cautions

The bible for herbalists in terms of herbal safety The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety by Mills and Bone mention a number of different important points regarding the safe use of Berberis vulgaris.

It is contraindicated in pregnancy, lactation and in jaundiced neonates.

They list the common dosages as

  • 2-6 grams/day of dried bark by decoction
  • 6-9 ml/day of a 1:1 liquid extract
  • 6-12 ml/day of a 1:10 tincture

The berberine monograph by Thorne lists the recommended clinical dosage of berberine at 200 mg orally 2-4 times daily.

Herbal Medicine Conclusion

All in all Berberis vulgaris or barberry seems like quite a valuable addition to any herbalist. Apparently it has even naturalised in a very small area of New South Wales and can be grown in cooler areas of the state (7). Hopefully Byron Bay isn’t too subtropical to grow such a potent and useful herbal medicine! I’ll report back on that sooner or later.

If you’ve had any experiences with Berberis vulgaris or berberine share them below!

References and Resources

  1. Principles and Practices of Phytochemistry 
  2. https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Herbal-Medicine-Definitive-Reference/dp/0789467836
  3. Aqueous extract of dried fruit of Berberis vulgaris L. in acne vulgaris, a clinical trial.
  4. A quick overview on some aspects of endocrinological and therapeutic effects of Berberis vulgaris L.
  5. Berberine monograph by Thorne
  6. The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety
  7. PlantNet – Barberis vulgaris
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  1. Hi!! I am just starting to research herbs and their medicinal benefits (it’s so interesting) but I”m having trouble making profiles… any suggestions?

    1. hey jackie! How do you mean profiles? Monographs on herbs can be found in most of the good herbal medicine books. My favourite is David Hoffman’s Medical Herbalism but there are a bunch more. Let me know if that answered your question 🙂

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