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Barberry

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Updated June 27, 2014

Barberry and bilberry, Berberis vulgaris, Vaccinium myrtillus. Handcolored copperplate engraving of a botanical illustration by J. Schaly from G. T. Wilhelm's Unterhaltungen aus der Naturgeschichte' (Encyclopedia of Natural History)
Florilegius/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What is Barberry?

Also known as: Berberis vulgaris, mountain grape, pepperidge, berberry, common grape

Barberry has a long history of use as a folk remedy for digestive disorders, infection, indigestion, gallbladder disease and heartburn.

The active ingredients in barberry are thought to be the isoquinolone alkaloids, particularly berberine. These alkaloids are found in the root, rhizome and stem bark of the barberry plant. Other herbs that contain berberine are goldenseal (which has a higher concentration of berberine than barberry), the Chinese herb coptis and oregon grape.

Barberry is available in tea, tincture, capsule, dried herb, and tablet forms.

Why Do People Use Barberry?

  • Diarrhea

    Research studies indicate that the alkaloid berberine may fight bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic infections.

    Another alkaloid in barberry, called berberamine, is believed to help fight infections by stimulating white blood cells called macrophages.

    In alternative medicine, barberry is used mainly for bacterial diarrhea, traveler's diarrhea, intestinal parasitic infections and chronic candidiasis.

    Barberry capsules are usually recommended, especially those standardized to contain 5 to 12% isoquinolone alkaloids.

  • Indigestion

    When using barberry for indigestion, alternative practitioner recommend a liquid form, such as a liquid extract or tea, because the bitter taste is thought to help it's medicinal action. It's usually taken 15 to 20 minutes before a meal.

  • Liver and Gallbladder Conditions

    Barberry is thought to promote the secretion and flow of bile and be a milkd laxative. Although it's sometimes promoted as a herbal remedy for gallstones, it shouldn't be used for this condition unless under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional.

  • Urinary Tract Infections

    One study suggested that berberine may be active against Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Some sources say that the berry portion of barberry is more effective at combatting urinary tract infections than the root.

Side Effects and Safety Concerns

Barberry may cause diarrhea, especially in larger amounts.

Barberry may lower blood pressure.

Overdose of barberry can result in nosebleeds, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion and kidney irritation. Symptoms of kidney problems are bloody urine, pain when urinating, low back or stomach pain, and fever. Seek medical attention immediately.

Barberry should not be used to replace conventional treatment. In particular, it shouldn't be used as a home remedy for urinary tract infections. If the bacteria aren't fully eradicated, the infection may spread to the kidneys, even though symptoms such as difficult or painful urination may disappear.

Pregnant women should not use barberry, because it may stimulate uterine contractions and cause miscarriage. The safety of barberry in nursing women (and the infant) is unknown so it should be avoided.

Although barberry is sometimes used for diarrhea in children, it should only be used under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner.

Possible Interactions

Berberine may alter the way prescription drugs are metabolised in the body, although there's limited information about specific interactions. For example, one study published in the European Journal of Pharmacology found that berberine elevated the amount of the drug cyclosporin A in kidney transplant patients.


Sources:

Cernakova M, Kostalova D. Antimicrobial activity of berberine--a constituent of Mahonia aquifolium. Folia Microbiol (Praha). 2002;47(4):375-8.

Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy. Emmaus: Rodale, 1997.

Feltrow, C.W. and J.R. Avila. The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Lust, John. The Herb Book: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to More Than 500 Herbs. New York: Benedict Lust Publications, 2005.

Peirce, Andrea. The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

Wu X, Li Q, Xin H, Yu A, Zhong M. Effects of berberine on the blood concentration of cyclosporin A in renal transplanted recipients: clinical and pharmacokinetic study. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2005 Sep;61(8):567-72.

02/01/06

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