Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is a bush native to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa that’s been naturalized to many regions of North America. The berries of the barberry are traditionally used to make jams and jellies. But the herb also has a long history as a folk remedy for digestive disorders, including constipation, diarrhea, dyspepsia, heartburn, and loss of appetite. It was thought to increase the flow bile, which is why it was used for liver and gallbladder problems. Topically it was recommended to treat skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne, as well as minor wounds.
The active constituents in barberry are thought to be the isoquinoline alkaloids, particularly berberine. Alkaloids are a class of naturally occurring organic nitrogen-containing bases; other well-known alkaloids include morphine, strychnine, quinine, ephedrine, and nicotine. The alkaloids in barberry are found in the root, rhizome, and stem bark of the plant. Other herbs that contain berberine are golden seal (which has a higher concentration of berberine than barberry), the Chinese herb Coptic, and Oregon grape.
Though there are studies of berberine that may apply to barberry, evidence for any health benefits for barberry is extremely weak. Any benefit likely relies on the fact that it contains berberine, for which medical uses are being established.2
For instance, scientists have investigated berberine’s traditional use in fighting infections. According to a 2008 review article on natural approaches to preventing and treating infections of the lower urinary tract, berberine extracts demonstrate significant antimicrobial activity against a variety of organisms, including bacteria like Chlamydia, viruses, fungi, and protozoans.3
The Chinese have used beriberi-containing herbal remedies for more than 3,000 years, and berberine is an over-the-counter drug in that country for the treatment of gastrointestinal infections, such as bacterial diarrhea. In 1988, the hypoglycemic effect of berberine was discovered when berberine was used to treat diarrhea in diabetic patients in China.
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD), one of the most reliable natural medicine resources available, rates berberine as “possibly effective” for a range of conditions.4 Here’s a rundown:
9 Impressive Health Benefits of Barberries
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Berberis vulgaris, commonly known as barberry, is a shrub that grows tart, red berries.
While the plant is native to parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, it can now be found all over the world.
Its berries have been used in traditional medicine for centuries to treat digestive issues, infections, and skin conditions.
They contain several beneficial compounds, most notably berberine, which acts as an antioxidant and may help manage conditions like diabetes, fight dental infections, and treat acne (1Trusted Source).
1. High in nutrients
Barberries are highly nutritious. They are rich in carbs, fiber, and several vitamins and minerals.
In particular, the berries are an excellent source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that may help protect against cellular damage, which can lead to heart disease and cancer (2Trusted Source).
In addition, barberries contain zinc, manganese, and copper, all of which are trace minerals that play significant roles in immunity and disease prevention
The bright red color of the berries comes from anthologists, which are plant pigments that may boost your brain and heart health, among other benefits
2. Contain beneficial plant compounds
Barberries are rich in berberine, a unique plant compound that may be associated with several health benefits.
Berberine is a member of the alkaloid family, a group of compounds known for their therapeutic effects
Studies have shown that it acts as a powerful antioxidant, combating cell damage caused by reactive molecules called free radicals (11Trusted Source).
Also, berberine may help reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels, slow the progression of certain cancer cells, fight infections, and have anti-inflammatory effects
What’s more, barberries contain other compounds that may have health benefits, such as other alkaloids and organic acids. Yet, most research has focused on berberine (12Trusted Source).
3. May help manage diabetes
Barberries — and in particular their berberine content — may play a role in managing diabetes, a chronic disease marked by high blood sugar levels.
Specifically, berberine has been shown to improve how your cells respond to the hormone insulin, which regulates the amount of sugar in your blood. In turn, this may help lower your blood sugar levels (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).
One 3-month study in 36 adults with type 2 diabetes found that taking 1.5 grams of berberine per day led to a significant 2% reduction in hemoglobin A1c — a measure of your average blood sugar control over the past 3 months — compared with baseline values (16Trusted Source).
In fact, researchers found that the beneficial effects of berberine on blood sugar and hemoglobin-A1c were comparable to those of the traditional diabetes drug metformin (16Trusted Source).
Another 8-week study in 30 people with type 2 diabetes found that those who took 2 mg of dried barberry fruit extract daily had reduced hemoglobin A1c levels and significantly lower blood sugar levels, compared with a placebo group (17Trusted Source).
However, these studies focused on supplemental berberine and barberry extract. It’s unclear if consuming fresh or dried barberries would have comparable effects on your blood sugar control.
4. Can help treat diarrhea
This is likely due to their high concentration of berberine, which helps slow the transit of feces through your gut by inhibiting certain receptors, thus preventing diarrhea
In fact, one of the oldest human studies on berberine found that it treated diarrhea caused by infections from certain bacteria, including E. coli (21Trusted Source).
Furthermore, one study in 196 adults with diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome (BIS-D) found taking 800 mg of berberine hydrochloride per day significantly decreased the frequency of diarrhea and the urgent need to defecate, compared with a placebo
While these results are interesting, more human research is needed to better understand how berberine and barberries may help treat diarrhea.
5. May protect against metabolic syndrome
Eating barberries may help prevent metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of risk factors that increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
In particular, barberries may protect against obesity and high blood sugar, cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels — all of which are risk factors for this syndrome (23Trusted Source).
One 8-week study in 46 patients with type 2 diabetes found that drinking around 7 ounces (200 ml) of barberry juice per day significantly reduced blood pressure, triglyceride, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, compared with a placebo (24Trusted Source).
In addition to improving the risk factors for metabolic syndrome, barberries may help decrease oxidative stress in those who already have the condition.
Oxidative stress results from underlying cell damage caused by reactive molecules called free radicals. Having too much oxidative stress — and not enough antioxidants to fight it — can lead to heart disease and other health issues (25Trusted Source).
A 6-week study in 106 people with metabolic syndrome showed taking 600 mg of dried barberry per day significantly decreased oxidative stress compared with a placebo (25Trusted Source).
Based on these results, eating the berries may help decrease your chances of developing risk factors for metabolic syndrome, as well as reduce oxidative stress associated with it. Nevertheless, more research is needed.
6. Good for dental health
Test-tube studies have shown that barberry extract can fight inflammation.
This is likely because berberine acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent (12Trusted Source).
Therefore, it may help treat inflammatory dental diseases like gingivitis, which is marked by plaque buildup, swelling, and irritation of the gums (26Trusted Source).
One study in 45 boys between the ages of 11 and 12 found that applying barberry dental gel for 21 days reduced plaque and gingivitis significantly more than a placebo (27).
The study also indicated that barberry gel was more effective than traditional anti-plaque toothpaste, but the results were not significant (27).
These results suggest that barberry treatments may promote good dental health, but more research is needed.
Have medical questions? Connect with a board-certified, experienced doctor online or by phone. Pediatricians and other specialists available 24/7.
7. May have anticancer effects
There are several different ways in which barberries may exert anticancer effects, all of which are related to berberine.
Since berberine acts as an antioxidant, it may help fight underlying oxidative damage associated with cancer development (28Trusted Source).
Additionally, berberine may cause cancer cell death, prevent cancer cell replication, and inhibit enzymes involved in the life cycle of cancer cells (28Trusted Source).
Several test-tube studies have shown that berberine prevents tumor growth and initiates cell death in human prostate, liver, bone, and breast cancer cells
However, research is limited to test-tube studies, and more research is needed to better understand the potential role of barberries in cancer treatment and prevention.
8. May help fight acne
Barberries may play a role in treating acne, a skin condition characterized by inflamed bumps and pimples.
Specifically, berberine and other compounds in barberries may help fight inflammation and infections associated with acne
One study in adolescents with moderate to severe acne found that taking 600 mg of dried barberry extract per day for 4 weeks significantly reduced the average number of lesions, compared with a placebo
The study concluded that extract from this berry may be a safe and effective treatment option for teenagers with acne, but more extensive research is needed.
9. Easy to add to your diet
Barberries are known to have a tart, slightly sweet flavor and can be eaten raw, in jam, or as a component of rice dishes and salads. They can also be juiced or used to make tea.
Supplemental forms of barberry include dried capsules, liquid extracts, and ointments or gels made from whole berries or berberine extract. However, due to the limited research in humans, there is no recommended dosage for barberry or berberine supplements.
While barberries are generally recognized as safe for most people, there are some reports that large amounts or high supplemental doses can cause stomach upset and diarrhea
What’s more, there is no research on the effects of barberries in children or pregnant or lactating women. Therefore, barberry or berberine supplements should be avoided in these populations (34Trusted Source).
To reap the possible health benefits of barberries, try using whole, fresh berries in your cooking.
If you are interested in taking a barberry or berberine supplement, consult your healthcare provider first and look for a supplement that has been tested for quality by a third party.