Common Names

Barberry, European Barberry, Jaundice Berry
Botanical Name
Berberis vulgaris

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What is it?

Barberry is a thorny, yellow-wooded and long-lived shrub with arched, hanging pale-green leaves, small yellow flowers and red, oblong berries. The main part used in herbal medicine is the outer bark of the roots.




How has it been used?

Barberry has a rich historical use, including the Ancient Egyptians using it against the plague; medieval monks using the berries as food and the root as a medicine for all kinds of sicknesses and Polish leather crafters making a beautiful yellow dye from the wood. In addition to using Barberry for liver and gall-bladder problems, traditional Russian healers recommended it for inflammations, high blood pressure and abnormal uterine bleeding

Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, one of the most influential medical books in history, writes of Barberry being markedly cooling and drying. He says 'It is very strong for eradicating the yellow bile and for swellings and pimples: It strengthens the stomach and liver and quenches the thirst.'

Thomas Bartram recommends Barberry for toxaemia from drugs and environmental chemicals and gives a list of recommendations for its use including 'a sluggish liver, jaundice, biliousness, gastritis & gallstones.'

Maude Grieves says 'it is used in all cases of jaundice, general debility and biliousness, and for diarrhoea'. She says that 'as a bitter stomachic tonic, it proves an excellent remedy for dyspepsia and functional derangement of the liver, regulating the digestive powers.'

Simon Mills says Barberry is for 'debilitated conditions marked by poor digestive function and a history of dietary or alcohol abuse, or excessive exposure to drugs, chemicals or industrial pollutants.'

Barberry extract is used to treat conjunctivitis in Germany where they use a preparation made from called Opthiole. This is consistent with an old treatment using Barberry tea as a compress for sore, infected or inflamed eyes.

John Heinermann talks about Barberry in his book on Healing herbs 'Ros Nez of Teesto, Arizona is one of a dwindling number of Navajo 'singers' or shamans. For years he has used medicinal herbs to cure diseases in hundreds of Navajo patients. One of his favourite remedies is Barberry root bark for fevers of all kinds. Ross digs around the base of a Barberry shrub, uses his pocket knife to cut away a few of the roots, but leaves the rest so the bush won't die. He then scrapes away slivers of the outside bark until there is the equivalent of one-half palm full. This he throws into an old coffee-pot filled with about 1-1/2 pints of water (approx. a litre) and lets the mixture percolate on low heat for about 20 minutes. Then he strains the tea and gives one cupful to a patient stricken with fever. He repeats this every four hours and makes sure it is taken on an empty stomach. He swears it has never failed to work for him in all the years he has been practicing as a medicine man.' Nez also told Heinermann that 'the same tea he used for curing fevers was also effective for promoting bowel movement in cases of constipation, in clearing up alcoholic hangovers, and in returning the blood to normal in those with a history of hepatitis; half-cup doses every 6-8 hours was what he recommended.'


Science on Barberry

~ The berberine in Barberry has remarkable infection fighting properties and studies from different parts of the world (e.g. Amin AH, Subbaiah T, Abbasi Km. Can J Microbiol 1969;15:1067-1076, Palasuntheram C, Sangara Iyer J, De Silva LB et al. Ind J Med Res 1982; 76 (suppl):71-76) show that it kills microorganisms that:
cause infections in wounds (such as Staphylococci and Streptococci)
diarrhoea (e.g. Salmonella and Shigella)
dysentery (Endamoeba hitolytica)
cholera (Vibrio cholerae)
giardiasis (Giardia lamblia)
urinary tract infections (Escherichia coli)
vaginal infections (Candida albicans).

~ Barberry can help improve some key aspects of the metabolic syndrome. One study comprised type 2 diabetic patients (N=57). They were randomly assigned into three treatment groups: processed B. vulgaris (N=19), apple vinegar (N=19), and control (N=19). The outcome measures of height, weight, serum total cholesterol, HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and insulin levels were analyzed at baseline and after eight weeks. BMI, the total:HDL cholesterol ratio, and insulin resistance were estimated. B. vulgaris treatment resulted in a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol concentration (22.48 ± 35.44mg/dL) and the total:HDL cholesterol ratio (2.56 ± 4.87) and a significant increase in HDL cholesterol concentration (12.33 ± 20.58mg/dL) (p<0.05) (Ebrahimi-Mamaghani M, Arefhosseini SR, Golzar, M, Aliasgarzadeh A, and Vahed-Jabbary M. [Long-term effects of processed berberis vulgaris on some metabolic syndrome components]. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 2009;39(11):2109-2118)

The alkaloid berberine in Barberry has been shown to stimulate the immune system by activating the macrophages that devour harmful microorganisms. Most herbalists, including me, feel that you get a deeper, and safer, benefit from the plant by using the whole extract rather than one part of it however it is that same berberine that most of the scientific articles, studies etc. have been made on and a reader with an interest in more of the science on Barberry will find a great deal of literature related to it. In any case it is reported that there is 6.1% of Berberine in the root bark of Barberry so it is certainly possible to get a high dose of it through using the whole plant extract. (Supek Z and Tomic D. Farmakološko-kemijsko istrazivanje zutike (Berberis vulgaris L.). Lijecnicki Vjesnik 1946;68:16)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of nearly 200 further studies and articles on Barberry are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Barberry

Barberry teas and extracts should not be used by pregnant or breast-feeding women. If it is used in doses that are too high for the person to handle then they will likely experience some nausea or even vomiting. Even at normal therapeutic doses it is quite possible that there will be a noticeable drop in blood pressure, heart rate and respiration rate some 30 minutes or so after taking a dose but this does not last and these are not necessarily adverse effects but rather an indicator that this is a medicine best taken with care and an understanding that the cleansing process sometimes requires you to simply rest!

If you do feel a bit rough, especially in the beginning of a treatment course with Barberry this is not a reason to avoid the herb but it will be important to know that in such cases what you feel is what you get. In other words, there are no further damaging effects that you aren't seeing that you should expect to have to deal with later! Barberry is a potent cleansing herb but surely, when needed, it is better to go through some temporary discomfort of some detoxification to regain your health.


Personal experiences

A person who has not been able to pull themselves out of a chronic illness because they are encumbered, congested, bogged down by tiredness and toxicity, can be the ones who benefit the most from such a medicine as Barberry, because it is a superb liver tonic.

I tell me patients 'the liver is the herbalist's favourite organ'. It's something my first teacher, Dennis Stewart, used to say and it's stuck with me. We like to treat the liver because it does the person so much good and, even when they have no idea that their liver is in any kind of trouble, a person usually feels a great deal of positive difference in their health when you use those herbs that activate and cleanse this powerhouse of an organ.

The liver is the hottest organ in the body because it works the hardest. 24 hours a day, and especially at night, it is constantly cleaning the blood and at the same time making literally thousands of different, essential chemical compounds that the body needs to repair its wear and tear.

Barberry is one of the best, strongest, and most reliable of all liver tonics. I have used it thousands of times and have developed a deep trust that it will activate and cleanse the liver when needed.

As is so often the case in herbal medicine the art of a truly successful treatment lies in the dose and in the case of Barberry we have much less wriggle room to get it wrong than many of the other liver herbs.

Too much and the person goes too strongly into a period of cleansing that can be more than their system is ready to handle, too low and the job doesn't get done. Bearing in mind that these are the amounts that we use from making our own Barberry tincture from raw material in our clinic the dosages I have typically found to be strong enough but not too strong are in the order of about 3-4 mls. a day, usually in 2 or 3 divided doses.

That said, I will gladly use a decoction of Barberry in high doses (5 grams or even up to 10 grams) when someone is acutely unwell and I need to get an immediate and potent effect.

Barberry is a herb that can get easier to handle when it has been in the system for a few days and there can be wisdom and safety in building the dose up gradually if you are unsure or if the person taking it knows that they are highly sensitive to cleansing medicines.

If you are studying herbal medicine or would simply like to get to know these great plant allies at a more personal level then I urge you to take at least a few drops of Barberry, maybe more if you feel you are up for it, just by itself and at least 2 or 3 times over as many days, to experience the 'action' of the herb for yourself.

This is a large part of how we have learned about these remedies since ancient times, how they can be 'felt' and so therefore better understood in this extraordinarily intelligent, living laboratory that we all own; our 'body'.

Speaking for myself when I take a small dose with a quiet and attentive mind I can almost immediately feel the power of Barberry moving any stuck dampness within. It clears the way like a worker determined to brook no opposition!

Barberry has a marvellous presence when you open up to it in such ways that will forever give you a healthy respect for its ability to activate and cleanse your body. I should note that if you do have some physical or even emotional 'stuck dampness' in your body in general or your liver in particular then you will probably get to experience for yourself, in a very practical way, what all this cleansing business is about - but you can be sure it will only do you good in the long run!

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

Barberry combines perfectly with Dandelion root and Burdock for deep blood cleansing programs and with Licorice root to cleanse and tone the bowel. If I want to make a liver program about as strong as it can be then I will use the Barberry root along with some Celandine and even possibly a very little Poke Root. Barberry taken along with Red Clover and Cleavers is remarkably good at cleansing the lymphatic system (problems there showing with such things as swollen glands, eruptive skin, or sore joints)


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Barberry is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with herb B. There is value in this approach in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another but where it falls short is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Barberry might work brilliantly for one person but less well for another with the same sort of symptoms -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Barberry can particularly offer its benefits when a cleansing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - more about this here

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

A tea made from the bark of Barberry is taken during the spring months as a blood purifier. A strong decoction is employed as an application to the sores which sometimes afflict children's lips, and in certain conditions of the system demanding tonic treatment; the infusion is a favorite remedy. It is more satisfactory in its action than the alkaloid berberine" (Lloyd's Berberidaceae).

The berries form an agreeable acidulous draught, useful as a refrigerant in fevers, also beneficial in dysentery, cholera infantum, diarrhoea, etc. The bark is bitter and astringent, and has been used with advantage as a tonic. A decoction of the bark or berries, has been found of service as a wash in aphthous sore mouth, and in chronic ophthalmia. Webster declares it of value in jaundice when there is no obstruction of the bile ducts, and in doses short of purgative stimulates the duodenal functions relieving intestinal dyspepsia. Small doses are also palliative in renal calculi, and in soreness, burning, and other unpleasant sensations of the urinary tract.

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd