Barberry is a bush that grows wild in Europe and North America. It is closely related to Oregon grape ( Berberis aquifolium). The root, stem, bark, and fruit of barberry are all used medicinally. Barberry was traditionally used as a treatment for digestive problems, including constipation, diarrhea, dyspepsia (stomach upset), heartburn, and loss of appetite. It was said to work by increasing the flow of bile, and on this basis it has also been used for liver and gallbladder problems. Topical preparations of barberry have been recommended for the treatment of eczema, psoriasis, and minor wounds.
There are no medically established uses of barberry. Only double-blind placebo-controlled studies, can establish a treatment effective, and none have been performed on barberry. (For information on why this type of study is essential, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-Blind Studies?)
Very weak evidence (too weak to be relied upon at all) hints that barberry root extracts may have anti-inflammatory, fever-reducing, and analgesic (pain-reducing) effects.1,2
Similarly weak evidence hints that barberry fruit may have antihypertensive and antihistaminic effects.3,4
Barberry, like goldenseal and Oregon grape, contains the chemical berberine. There has been some studies of purified berberine that might apply to barberry, as well. Berberine inhibits the growth of many microorganisms, including fungi, protozoa, and bacteria.5-11,22 In one placebo-controlled study, berberine effectively reduced lung injury among lung cancer patients receiving radiation therapy.23
On this basis, berberine has been proposed as a topical antiseptic for use in minor wounds and vaginal infections. Berberine has also shown potential as a treatment for various heart-related conditions, including reducing high cholesterol and high blood pressure and preventing heart arrhythmias.12-14 However, it is not clear that barberry provides enough berberine to produce any of these potential benefits.
Topical formulations of the related plant Oregon grape have shown some promise for psoriasis,15-17 and barberry has been marketed for this condition as well. However, there is no direct evidence that it works.
Barberry significantly reduced the number of inflamed, noninflamed, and acne facial lesions in a small randomized trial of 49 adolescents aged 12-17 years old with moderate to severe acne. Acne severity (based on a standard scale) was also significantly improved. The trial compared barberry (600 mg per day orally for 4 weeks) to placebo. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any other studies that support or refute these findings and this is a very small study so it is hard to draw any firm conclusions.24
Barberry is traditionally used at a dose of 2 grams three times daily, or an equivalent amount in extract form. For treatment of psoriasis and other skin conditions, barberry is used in the form of a 10% cream, applied to the skin three times daily.
One study suggests that topical use of berberine could cause photosensitivity (an increased tendency to react to sun exposure.18 Berberine-containing herbs should not be used by pregnant women because berberine may increase levels of bilirubin,19 potentially damaging the fetus, and might also cause genetic damage.20 Individuals who already have elevated levels of bilirubin (jaundice), or any other form of liver disease, should also avoid berberine-containing herbs.
Safety in young children and nursing women has not been established.
One study hints that berberine may decrease the efficacy of the drug tetracycline.21
1. Kupeli E, Kosar M, Yesilada E, et al. A comparative study on the anti-inflammatory, antinociceptive and antipyretic effects of isoquinoline alkaloids from the roots of Turkish Berberis species. Life Sci. 2002;72:645–57.
2. Yesilada E, Kupeli E. Berberis crataegina DC root exhibits potent anti-inflammatory, analgesic and febrifuge effects in mice and rats. J Ethnopharmacol. 2002;79:237–48.
3. Shamsa F, Ahmadiani A, Khosrokhavar R. Antihistaminic and anticholinergic activity of barberry fruit ( Berberisvulgaris) in the guinea-pig ileum. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;64:161–6.
4. Fatehi-Hassanabad Z, Jafarzadeh M, Tarhini A, et al. The antihypertensive and vasodilator effects of aqueous extract from Berberis vulgaris fruit on hypertensive rats. Phytother Res. 2005;19:222–225.
5. Hahn FE, Ciak J. Berberine. Antibiotics. 1976;3:577–584
6. Bae EA, Han MJ, Kim NJ, Kim DH. Anti- Helicobacter pylori activity of herbal medicines. Biol Pharm Bull. 1998;21:990–992.
7. Kaneda Y. In vitro effects of berberine sulphate on the growth and structure of Entamoeba histolytica, Giardialamblia and Trichomonas vaginalis. Ann Trop Med Parasitol. 1991;85:417–425.
8. Scazzocchio F, Cometa MF, Tomassini L, et al. Antibacterial activity of Hydrastis canadensis extract and its major isolated alkaloids. Planta Med. 2001;67:561–564.
9. Soffar SA, Metwali DM, Abdel-Aziz SS, et al. Evaluation of the effect of a plant alkaloid (berberine derived from Berberis aristata) on Trichomonas vaginalis in vitro. J Egypt Soc Parasitol. 2001;31:893–904.
10. Stermitz FR, Lorenz P, Tawara JN, et al. Synergy in a medicinal plant: antimicrobial action of berberine potentiated by 5'-methoxyhydnocarpin, a multidrug pump inhibitor. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000; 97:1433–1437.
11. Lesnau A, Hils J, Pohl G, et al. Antiviral activity of berberine salts. Pharmazie. 1990;45:638–9.
12. Doggrell SA. Berberine–a novel approach to cholesterol lowering. Expert Opin Investig Drugs. 2005;14:683–5.
13. Lau CW, Yao XQ, Chen ZY, et al. Cardiovascular actions of berberine. Cardiovasc Drug Rev. 2001;19:234–44.
14. Kong W, Wei J, Abidi P, et al. Berberine is a novel cholesterol-lowering drug working through a unique mechanism distinct from statins. Nat Med. 2004;10:1344–51.
15. Wiesenauer M, Ldtke R. Mahonia aquifolium in patients with psoriasis vulgaris—an intraindividual study. Phytomedicine. 1996;3:231–235.
16. Gieler U, von der Weth A, Heger M. Mahonia aquifolium —a new type of topical treatment for psoriasis. J Dermatol Treat. 1995;6:31–34.
17. Augustin M, Andrees U, Grimme H, et al. Effects of Mahonia aquifolium ointment on the expression of adhesion, proliferation, and activation markers in the skin of patients with psoriasis. Forsch Komplementrmed. 1999;6(suppl 2):19–21.
18. Inbaraj JJ, Kukielczak BM, Bilski P, et al. Photochemistry and photocytotoxicity of alkaloids from goldenseal ( Hydrastis canadensis L.) 1. Berberine. Chem Res Toxicol. 2001;14:1529–1534.
19. Chan E. Displacement of bilirubin from albumin by berberine. Biol Neonate. 1993;63:201–208.
20. Pasqual MS, Lauer CP, Moyna P, Henriques JA. Genotoxicity of the isoquinoline alkaloid berberine in prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms. Mutat Res. 1993;286:243–21.
21. Khin-Maung-U, Myo-Khin, Nyunt-Nyunt-Wai, et al. Clinical trial of berberine in acute watery diarrhoea. BrMed J. 1985;291:1601–5.
22. Amin AH, Subbaiah TV, Abbasi KM. Berberine sulfate: antimicrobial activity, bioassay, and mode of action. Can J Microbiol. 1969;15:1067–1076.
23. Liu Y, Yu H, Zhang C, et al. Protective effects of berberine on radiation-induced lung injury via intercellular adhesion molecular-1 and transforming growth factor-beta-1 in patients with lung cancer. Eur J Cancer. 2008;44(16):2425-2432.
24. Fouladi RF. Aqueous extract of dried fruit of Berberis vulgaris L. in acne vulgaris, a clinical trial. J Diet Suppl. 2012;9(4):253-261.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 2/26/2016