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The Power of Barberry

The berberis plant is a large shrub growing from one to five metres high. There are various species of berberis, but Berberis vulgaris or barberry is the most widely grown and used. Barberries are traditionally an important food source as well as a powerful medicine. In Central Asia and Iran, the berries are used in a variety of dishes including sauces, jellies, juices, jams and carbonated drinks, as well as a natural food colouring. Barberry has been used to improve multiple human health problems going back millennia and across many cultures, including fever, cough, liver disease, depression, ulceration, bleeding, high cholesterol and diabetes. The parts of the plant used medicinally include the roots, red berries, leaves and bark.

Active ingredients

Nutritionally the berries are sour, due to the high levels of ascorbic acid, and are rich in vitamins A, C and K and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, manganese and potassium. They contain 1.2 per cent fat, 2 per cent protein and 16 per cent carbohydrates, with high levels of anthocyanins.

Medicinally the plant has several triterpenoids, tannins, carotenoids, anthocyanins, a variety of phenolics and more than 30 alkaloids. The most researched active component of barberry is the alkaloid berberine, also found in goldenseal and Oregon grape. Berberine itself has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hypoglycaemic and hypolipidaemic properties.

Berberine is found in all parts of the plant in differing amounts, and all parts of the plant are used medicinally. Phenolics and anthocyanins are highest in the berries, flavonoids in the leaves and the alkaloids including berberine are highest in the roots.

Therapeutic actions


Research has shown that berberine lowers cholesterol through a different mechanism from statins, increasing a protein in the liver that binds to cholesterol and increases its excretion.

Barberry fruits have been shown to reduce high blood pressure and weight in overweight patients with non-alcoholic liver disease. In one trial, both the mean systolic and diastolic blood pressure was significantly lower in those treated than the control group. Barberries also improve symptoms of ischaemia-induced ventricular arrythmias in heart disease. In a recent trial on 72 patients, barberry fruit eaten daily showed a measurable decrease in blood pressure and inflammation compared with control subjects.


There has been extensive research, both animal and human, on the use of barberry, showing it to be effective in improving multiple parameters of this debilitating condition.

A mouse study showed the use of barberry inhibited specific T lymphocytes, preventing the progression of type-1 diabetes, the most difficult form of diabetes to treat.

A recent meta-analysis of studies on 452 diabetic patients demonstrated that barberry significantly reduced insulin levels.

As berberine was demonstrated to effectively regulate glucose and lipid metabolism, studies were conducted on type-2 diabetic patients where berberine was compared with metformin over three months, and the results showed a similar hypoglycaemic effect, along with significant decreases in HbA1c, fasting blood glucose, postprandial blood glucose and triglycerides, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and plasma insulin. The results showed that berberine was at least as effective as metformin in managing type-2 diabetes.


Barberry has been shown to have neuroprotective properties, improving cognition, reducing dementia progression in Alzheimer’s disease and reducing seizures. In rat studies on epilepsy, berberine from barbery roots reduced convulsions by modulating neurotransmitter activity.

Rat studies have also shown that an aqueous barberry extract was neuroprotective and decreased the abnormal behavioural symptoms in Parkinson’s disease.

Immune system

Berberine has antibacterial, antiparasitic, antiviral and antifungal effects over a broad range of pathogenic organisms. It works by inhibiting the organisms’ reproduction and maturation, inhibiting endotoxin formation and reducing inflammation. It has been shown to be more effective than Flagyl with giardia infections, a notorious gut parasite.

A compilation of in vivo studies investigating the anti-inflammatory effects of Berberis vulgaris on mice, rat and human cells showed a significant cell immune response to Th2, inhibition of the anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-1, TNF and IFN-ɣ, and the stimulation of the anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-4 and IL-10. Inducing apoptosis in cancer cells was another mechanism reported.


Barberry fruit has been shown to inhibit the gene expression of a major liver cancer marker alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and to reduce the activity of liver enzymes, thereby reducing the risk of hepatocellular cancer in rats. Research also indicates berberine’s effectiveness against the hepatitis C virus.

Berberine has demonstrated preventative activity in various cancer cell lines such as cancers of the bladder, colon and breast.

Antidote and protection against toxins

Research demonstrates that barberry and berberine are effective at providing a range of antidotes and protective agents against natural, industrial, environmental and chemical toxins, an important health issue today. While animal studies predominate, the research shows that berberine protects the liver, the brain, the heart, the kidney and the lungs from a wide range of toxins including alcohol (the liver), various chemotherapy pharmaceuticals (while maintaining their effectiveness against cancer), antibiotics, heavy metals such as mercury, lead and aluminium, herbicides, cigarette smoke and even from the stomach damage caused by aspirin.

Taking barberry

Berberine has shown no evidence of toxicity if taken at normal doses — the standard dose is 200mg orally two to four times daily — but can have side effects of gastrointestinal symptoms, flu-like symptoms and low blood pressure if taken in high doses. Care needs to be taken if used with other pharmaceuticals.

References available on request.

Dr Karen Bridgman

Dr Karen Bridgman

Karen Bridgman is a holistic practitioner at Lotus Health and Lotus Dental in Neutral Bay.

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