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What is barberry?

Originally used in Egypt thousands of years ago, barberry is now popular in Europe and North America. It can grow as tall as nine feet and contains gray, thorny branches. Its leaves come in a variety of colors and have spiny teeth. The plant’s flowers bloom between April and June, turning into dark red berries that grow in bunches.

Why do we need barberry? What is it used for?

Nearly every part of barberry (roots, berries, root bark and stem bark) is used for medicinal purposes. The berries and are occasionally used as a tonic in tea to stimulate the appetite, while the root is sometimes used as a dye. The root and stem bark, meanwhile, contain chemicals called isoquinoline alkaloids, which have various antibiotic properties. Some of them lower fever; others reduce swelling, lower blood pressure, and help stabilize heart rate.

Barberry may also be used externally to treat arthritis, psoriasis and other skin disorders.

How much barberry should I take?

The amount of barberry taken depends on the condition for which it is being used. For sore throats, bladder infections, diarrhea, bronchitis or yeast infections, the following doses are recommended:

  • Tea: 2-4 grams steeped, dried root three times daily
  • Tincture (a 1:5 solution made from barberry, alcohol and water): 3-6 milliliters three times daily
  • Extracts: 250-500 milligrams three times daily

For arthritis and skin disorders, apply an ointment containing 10% barberry extract three times a day.

Most health practitioners recommend that you do not take barberry for more than 5-7 days in a row. If you have a sensitive stomach, you should limit it to 3-5 days.

What forms of barberry are available?

Barberry can be found in many forms: as a tea; powdered in capsules; in fluid extracts and alcohol-based tinctures; and as a topical ointment. If using an extract, make sure that it is standardized to between 8-12% isoquinoline alkaloid content.

What can happen if I take too much barberry? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?

Barberry is safe when taken as directed. However, taking large doses for an extended period of time may irritate your stomach and make it difficult for the body to absorb B vitamins. Excessive doses can cause lethargy, nose bleeds, nausea and diarrhea, among other symptoms.

The American Herbal Products Association has given barberry a safety rating of 2B. It should not be used by pregnant women.

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  • Harborn, J, Baxter H. Phytochemical Dictionary: A Handbook of Bioactive Compounds from Plants. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis; 1993.
  • Ivanovska N, Philipov S. Study on the antiinflammatory action of berberis vulgaris root extract, alkaloid fractions, and pure alkaloids. Int J Immunopharmacol 1996;18:552—561.
  • Kowalchik C, Hylton W (eds.) Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press; 1998.
  • McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A. American Herbal Products Associations's Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1996.
  • Shamsa F, et al. Antihistaminic and anticholinergic activity of barberry fruit (berberis vulgaris) in the guinea-pig ileum. J Ethnopharmacol 1999;64:161—166.


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