Barberry (Berberis spp.)


Bearberry Summary

Barberry is a member of the Berberis genus. This genus contains a group of similar plants containing the active constituent, "berberine".

Berberine is a potent antibacterial, but has low oral bioavailability. This makes it especailly useful for gastrointestinal infections, and topically for sin infections. The bitter tasting, yellow pigmented extract of Barberry is one of the most popular antibacterial herbs in Western herbal medicine. Its reliability, and strong research base has made it a staple in herbal pharmacies.

This herb is very bitter tasting, which makes it useful as a bitter tonic for liver or gallbladder dysfunctions (see cautions to see stay clear of contraindications associated with this!).


+ Indications


  • Acute diarrhea
  • Anorexia
  • Arrhythmia
  • Bacterial and fungal infections
  • Cancer
  • Chronic skin conditions
  • Congestive heart failure (as adjunctive treatment)
  • Convalescence (as a tonic)
  • Elevated blood lipids
  • Fatty liver disease (non-alcoholic)
  • Fever
  • Gastric ulcer
  • Gastrointestinal indications
  • Giardiasis
  • High cholesterol
  • Hypertyraminaemia
  • Infectious diarrhea
  • Jaundice
  • Lower GI infection
  • Malaria
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Parasitic infection
  • Protection from radiation injury
  • Protozoal infection
  • Tapeworm
  • To stimulate bile secretion
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Type-2 diabetes mellitus


  • Acne vulgaris
  • Leishmaniasis
  • Psoriasis
  • Skin disorders and infections
  • Trachoma (as eye drops)

+ Contraindications

  • Caution when using cyclosporin due to changes in bioavailability
  • Avoid high doses

Herbal Actions:

  • Antimicrobial
  • Antiemetic
  • Bitter Tonic
  • Cholagogue
  • Choleretic
  • Antipsoriatic
  • Alterative
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Hepatoprotective
  • Laxitive (mild)

What Is Barberry Used For?

Barbery is used for topical bacterial, fungal, and parasitic skin infections, gastrointestinal infections, poor digestion, liver or gallbladder insufficiencies, elevated blood lipid levels, fatty liver disease, and high cholesterol.


Traditional Uses

+ Western Herbal Medicine

Berberis has a long history of use in western herbal medicine. It was used as a decoction as a blood purifier in the spring months, and topically as a mouth and eyewash [1].

The eclectics generally regarded berberis as a tonic, and for liver and gallbladder issues. They also used berberis for diarrhea, dysentery, and parasitic infections (including malaria) [1].


Weekly Dose

Part Used

Root/Rhizome, Bark

Family Name



North America (East Coast)

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Constituents of Interest

  • Berberine
  • Lambertine
  • Oxycanthine

Common Names

  • Barberry
  • Mahonia
  • Oregon Grape
  • Mountain Grape


  • Unknown


  • Unknown


  • Unknown


  • Unknown

Duration of Use

  • Avoid long term use.

Botanical Info:

There are over 500 species in the Berberis genus, the most common one in Europe is Berberis vulgaris, which is commonly referred to as Barberry. In North America, however, the most common species is Berberis aquifolia (Mahonia). Both are used or the same applications and have a very similar phytochemical profile.

Botanical Info

There are over 500 species in the Berberis genus, the most common one in Europe is Berberis vulgaris [1]. In North America, especially in the rocky mountains Berberis aquifolia (Mahonia) is the most common.

The bark appears brown on the outside, but if cut will reveal a yellow interior, this yellow is due to the high berberine content contained in the plant.

+ Differences In Common Species:

The leaves of Mahonia (Berberis aquifolium) are characteristically shiny, and resemble those of holly. It grows to about 6 feet high and is extremely hardy [5].

Berberis vulgaris leaves are not as shiny as mahonia species. This species has leaves arranged in clusters on short axillary shoots. The leaf shape is obovate to oblong obovate. The leaves can reach up to 4 cm long. [1].


Pharmacology & Medical Research

+ Antibacterial

Berberine has been found to possess significant antibacterial actions, especially against gram-positive bacteria such as E.coli. methicillin resistant Staphylococcus areus (MRSA), and S. epidermidis [1].

Berberine is active against bacteria such as:

  • Salmonella typhi [13]
  • Escheria coli [1, 13]
  • MRSA [1]
  • Staphylococcus epidermus/aureus/pyogenes [1, 13]

+ Antifungal

Berberine was found active against:

  • Aspergillus flavus/fumigatus [1]
  • Candida albicans [1, 3]
  • Including drug-resistant strains [3]
  • Curvularia [1]
  • Drechslera [1]
  • Fusarium [1]
  • Mucor [1]
  • Penicillium [1]
  • Rhizopus oryzae [1]
  • Scroupulariopsis [1]

+ Antiparasitic

Berberine possesses powerfully anti-parasitic actions comparable to quinine against 2 clones of human malaria (Plasmodium berghei and P. falciparum) [1]. Berberine was not found to be active against P. berghei parasitised mice however [1].

Berberine was found to possess anti-leishmaniasis activity as well [2].

Berberine was found effective against parasites including:

  • Entamoeba histoytica [1]
  • Giardia lamblia [1]
  • Trichomonas vaginalis [1]
  • Plasmodium berghei/falciparum [1]

+ Fatty liver Disease

Berberis has been shown to reduce fatty liver disease in the non alcoholic version of the disease. These effects were noted through a reduction of liver transaminases (ALT, AST), cholesterol, triglyceride LDL-C, and weight [4]. This is a significant finding because currently there are few treatments for the disease [6].

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) can progress to non-alcoholic steato-hepatitis (NASH), or liver fibrosis, cirrhosis, and failure [7-10]. Moreover, a decrease in liver triglycerides leads ultimately to a reduction in insulin sensitivity, and protection against type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome [11]. These disease processes are considered to be closely related and by treating one it appears that the other is subsequently being addressed. Therefore, berberine, and other herbs that target metabolic syndrome and insulin sensitivity may be an important treatment option for the prevention of NAFLD induced metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes.


Clinical Applications Of Barberry:

Barberry is best used clinically for bacterial, fungal, and most parasitisc infections o the gastrointestinal tract or topically on the skin. It is also useful for treating liver disease including fatty liver disease, highcholesterol levels (high HDL signifying liver damage), and metabolic syndromes.



Do not use barberry if pregnant, or experiencing gallbladder stones.

Berberis is contraindicated in pregnancy [1, 13]. This may be an outdated suggestion however, more research is needed.  

Contraindicated in the presence of gallstones.


Recommended Products Containing Barberry:

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Full Spectrum Barberry Capsules


Made from Berberis vulgaris root

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Dried Barberry

Cyrus Saffron

Zareshk Barberry

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Oregon Grape Extract

Herb Pharm

Made from Mahonia aquifolium

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JustinCooke, BHSc

The Sunlight Experiment

(Updated: November 2018)


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For a list of references, see the full Barberry monograph.