Ingredient Type: Botanical
Also Known As: Berberis vulgaris, European barberry, Vinetteier
Barberry, Berberis vulgaris, has an impressive medical history spanning over the last 2500 years. It has been said that the thorns of the barberry bush were even used in part of the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the day of his death, leading to the nickname Holy Thorn (1).
The root, bark, leaves, and fruit have been used in folk medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, homeopathy, and even considered as a bridge to the supernatural by Native American medicine men. Though there are similar plants native to North America, like Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium), the most cultivated species originated from Europe, N. Africa, and parts of the middle east (2). In the 17th century, when B. vulgaris was introduced to the new world, farmers grew a distaste for the plant as it served as host to the wheat rust fungus, which crippled harvests in the 19th century (1).
The brightly colored berries, pigment-rich roots and bark, and strong leaves lend to a vast array of the employment of this plant. The presence of the alkaloid berberine is responsible for the bright yellow hue of the root bark. This has primarily been used as a pigment for textiles in addition to a host of medicinal properties. Like many berries, the barberry became popular to make jams and other sweets while lending properties like anti-diarrheal and liver support.
WHAT DOES SCIENCE TELL US?
Barberry Possibly Supports Cardiovascular Health:
Some claims made about Berberis vulgaris have made berberine somewhat of a hot topic in the nutrition scene over the last few years. Many studies have recently focused on the lipid-lowering and glucose regulation potential of the herb (3). These studies are testing the prospect of using Berberis in the treatment of diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome. One study compared the effect that the root extract has on serum lipids and glucose compared to the popular pharmaceutical drug Metformin. Metformin is the first-line agent in many metabolic diseases, including type 2 diabetes. However, Metformin may be contraindicated in patients that have impaired kidney or liver function. With adjunctive use of berberine in treating such patients, it was found that doses of the potentially harmful pharmaceutical may be decreased (4). Significant decreases in blood glucose, insulin, lipids, LDL ("bad" cholesterol), and total cholesterol were found after 1, 2, and 3 months in type 2 diabetic patients who were treated with berberine extract (5). The significant results found in this study regarding lipid-lowering effects could decrease the deposition of atherosclerotic plaques, leading to heart disease. The prevalence of metabolic disorders and CVD in the US and worldwide will likely encourage more research to be done on how to treat these patients and potentially prevent such widespread occurrence safely.
Barberry Possibly has Antimicrobial Properties:
Perhaps the most long-standing use of the alkaloid berberine is for its potential as an antimicrobial. When pathogenic bacteria enter the body, they will first attach to a healthy cell and then enter that cell to infect it. Extract of berberine has been studied in various ways, which evaluate how it may prevent that attachment and could theoretically prevent the following infection (1). One study tested the extract on various pathogenic samples from infected humans to test the potential for inhibition of each of 9 bacteria. This study found that growth was inhibited in cultured bacterial samples of all of the following; E. Coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Salmonella, Staph aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and β- Streptococci (6). This study concluded that Berberis may help prevent infection and could also be useful in the treatment of the above infections.
Barberry Possibly Supports Healthy Cell Growth:
A good portion of the research conducted on Berberis has focused on isolating the alkaloid, which is thought to be the main active component, berberine. However, more recent studies have compared isolated berberine versus crude Berberis extract. Overall, they have identified that the synergistic effect of the entire phytochemical profile is more beneficial in most applications, anti-tumor properties among them (7). This same study concluded that concentrations of 1 μg/mL up to 100 μg/mL of both berberine isolate and crude Berberis extract exhibit inhibitory effects on breast, hepatic, colon, and cervix cancer cell lines (7). Abd El-Wahab et al. has published multiple studies comparing the effects of berberine isolate and crude extract. Their work has consistently shown that there is almost always benefit from utilizing the whole extract in multiple applications with fewer adverse effects and better tolerance than the alkaloid isolate.
Barberry Possibly Supports a Healthy Mind:
These research studies have found significant decreases in the activity of acetylcholinesterase with the use of Berberis extract. Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that has been found to be increased in patients with dementia and Alzheimer's disease (8). More research is required to assess the therapeutic applications of Berberis in patients who are at an increased risk of these disorders.
The use of Berberis vulgaris and its extract is generally considered safe under 500 mg doses. Below this threshold, there are few reported side effects. When dosed inappropriately, some patients may experience nausea, vomiting, hypotension, decreased pulse, and respiration rates (1). Patients who have G6PD deficiency should be dosed cautiously.
The inhibitory effect of berberine should be taken into consideration if taking other medications with a similar mechanism of action (9). For example, in patients taking Metformin, a lower dose may be indicated by taking berberine to lower blood sugar (3).
The presence of berberine is contraindicated in pregnancy due to the significant risk of harmful effects leading to malformations of the fetus. Berberine has also been shown to induce contractions in pregnancy (10). Though more research is needed to use Berberis during lactation, it is best avoided during breastfeeding.
Arayne M, Sultana N, Sher Bahadur S. The berberis story: Berberis vulgaris in therapeutics. Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. 2007;20(1):83-92.
Rahimi-Madiseh M, Lorigoini Z, Zamani-Gharaghoshi H, Rafieian-Kopaei M. Berberis vulgaris: specifications and traditional uses. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2017;20(5):569-587. DOI: 10.22038/IJBMS.2017.8690
Wang H, Zhu C, Ying Y, Luo L, Huang D, Luo Z. Metformin and berberine, two versatile drugs in treatment of common metabolic diseases. Oncotarget. 2017;9(11):10135-10146. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.20807
Pang B, Zhao LH, Zhou Q, et al. Application of berberine on treating type 2 diabetes mellitus. Int J Endocrinol. 2015;905749. doi: 10.1155/2015/905749
Shidfar F, Ebrahimi SS, Hosseini S, Heydari I, Shidfar S, Hajhassani G. The Effects of Berberis vulgaris Fruit Extract on Serum Lipoproteins, apoB, apoA-I, Homocysteine, Glycemic Control and Total Antioxidant Capacity in Type 2 Diabetic Patients. Iran J Pharm Res. 2012;11(2):643-52.
Shahid T, Memon M, Malik D, Ikram D, Malik D, Ali A. A study of Antimicrobial Activity of Berberis vulgaris (Zirishk) Aqueous Plant Extract using Pathogenic Isolates from Patients of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Imperial Journal of Interdisciplinary Research. 2017;3(5).
Abd El-Wahab AE, Ghareeb DA, Sarhan EE, Abu-Serie MM, El Demellawy MA. In vitro biological assessment of Berberis vulgaris and its active constituent, berberine: antioxidants, anti-acetylcholinesterase, anti-diabetic and anticancer effects. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013;13:218. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-13-218
El Sayed M, Doaa B, Ghareeb D, Ashraf B, Khalil A, et al. Therapeutic Bio-screening of the Bioactive Ingredients of Berberis vulgaris. Functional plant Science and Biotechnology, Global Science Book. 5:63-68.
Rad SZK, Rameshrad M, Hosseinzadeh H. Toxicology effects of Berberis vulgaris (barberry) and its active constituent, berberine: a review. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2017;20(5):516-529. doi: 10.22038/IJBMS.2017.8676.
Bone K. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy Modern Herbal Medicine. London: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013.