Health Benefits of Barberries

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 04, 2023
4 min read

Berberis vulgaris, commonly known as barberry, is a family of shrubs that grow around the world. They’re popular with gardeners for their colorful leaves, but some varieties, especially the Japanese barberry, are considered invasive plants.

Barberries have a long history in eastern and western traditional medicine for treating various health issues like constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, malaria, and more. Most of the plant can be used, including the bark, root, stem, leaf, as well as the fruit.

Antioxidants. About 22 alkaloids have been found in the barberry plant. Alkaloids are a group of compounds that have various properties beneficial for medicinal uses.

Berberine is one of these alkaloids, and some studies have shown that it has antioxidant effects on cell damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable atoms that can be harmful if they accumulate in the body, causing illness and aging.

Cholesterol. The berberine compound found in barberry plants may help improve cholesterol levels as it might lessen low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. LDL is the “bad” cholesterol because some of the LDL can enter artery walls. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood.

Congestive heart failure. Berberine may help improve the health of those with congestive heart failure, a condition in which your heart muscle doesn’t pump enough blood. A study of 156 adults with congestive heart failure found that those who were given 1.2 to 2 grams of berberine a day showed improvement in their exercise ability and how their heart pumped blood. Fewer of those given berberine died compared to those given placebos.

Type 2 diabetes. Researchers conducted a 3-month study of 36 adults with type 2 diabetes and found that taking berberine significantly lowered HbA1c levels. This is a measure of your average blood sugar (glucose) over the past few months. Berberine was found to be as effective as metformin, a medication used to control high blood sugar.

Berberine has been found to increase insulin sensitivity, which is the ability of your cells to use blood sugar more effectively. In a study in Iran, 30 adults with type 2 diabetes were given dried barberry extract. This was found to significantly decrease their blood sugar levels and HbA1c levels. More and larger studies are needed to prove to confirm these results.

Diarrhea. Barberries, or more specifically, the berberine compound in barberries, may be effective in treating diarrhea. In a study of 165 adults with bacterial diarrhea such as E. coli, those who were given berberine showed faster improvement with no side effects found. But doctors caution that because of the serious symptoms associated with bacterial diarrhea, standard antibiotic treatment should be given.

Acne. Barberry extract may be beneficial for those with acne. In a study of teenagers in Iran with moderate to severe acne, those who took 600 milligrams of barberry extract for 4 weeks had significantly fewer lesions compared to those who took a placebo.

Dental health. Barberry gel may be able to help with dental diseases like plaque and gingivitis, which is an inflammation of the gums. A study conducted on 45 boys aged 11 to 12 found that those who used a dental gel containing barberry extract had reduced gingivitis and plaque.

Most of the early studies on barberries have been lab or test-tube studies, with few carried out on humans so far. More extensive research is needed to better understand the possible roles that barberries have on our health. 

Some studies on berberine have shown that it can potentially cause indigestion, constipation, and rashes. Researchers caution against the use of barberry in women who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Berberine can worsen jaundice in infants or cause a more serious condition that results in brain disorders. Studies on the effects of barberries and berberine in children haven’t been done, so it’s best to avoid them for now. 

Berberine can also interact with certain medications. These include blood thinners (anticoagulants), blood pressure medications, diabetes medications, water pills (diuretics), as well as any drugs processed by the liver.

Talk to your doctor before you try any barberry products or berberine supplements. 

The berries of many varieties of barberry plants can be eaten. They have a tart flavor and are often made into jellies and jams. A popular dish in Iran is zereshk polow ba morgh, a rice dish with barberries and raisins.

Barberry supplements can be found as capsules, liquid extracts, and ointments. Dried barberries can be purchased from some health food and specialty stores.