You may have noticed a modern wave of harnessing the next best superfood and its health benefits for use in dietary approaches to medicine…when in fact many of these superfoods are a resurgence of traditional knowledge and medicine. Berberis vulgaris (also known as the berberry shrub) is an example of a traditional plant that has been used by the Iranian culture for thousands of years and is being studied today for its plethora of health benefits. The barberry plant was also used in Indian, European, and Native American cultures for treating various health issues such as diarrhea, fever, and diseases of the liver, gallbladder, and more. Berberis vulgaris has also been shown to have various skin benefits.
Barberry Origins and Active Components
As mentioned earlier, Berberis vulgaris is native to Iran, and also grows in Asia and Europe.[2,3] The shrub can grow up to 1.5–3 meters high and is known for its yellow-colored twigs, flowers and small red berries, the barberries, that are a rich source of vitamin C.[4-6] Its fruit, bark, leaves, and roots have all been used in traditional medicinal practices, and are often made into extracts for use today.[2,3] Berberis vulgaris is rich in plant compounds, including:
Over 20 alkaloid molecules (such as berberine, berbamine, and palmatine): Alkaloids originate from plants and are nitrogen-containing molecules that may have beneficial impacts on our immune system and health. For example, coffee, tea, and ginger have alkaloids that may be anti-inflammatory.
Organic acids: i.e., tannins and pectinic acid
The constituent that has been studied most frequent is the molecule called berberine, which gives the plant its name. It is suggested that berberine is found in all parts of the plant but may be the most concentrated in the roots.[1,2]
Credit: Andrew_sh at Pixabay.com
Berberine Health Benefits
The variety of uses for Berberis vulgaris in traditional medicine may be explained by its proposed health properties that are being studied today. The active component berberine is not fully understood in terms of how it is able to provide many of these health benefits, but it is suggested that it may have the following health effects:
Antifungal: In one laboratory-based study, berberine concentrate provided significant antifungal activity against Candida (a common fungal infection). Normally Candida is treated with anti-fungal medicine, such as the commonly prescribed fluconazole. However, some strains of Candida are resistant to fluconazole and one study found that berberine was effective against a fluconazole-resistant strain of candida.
Lowers blood glucose levels by increasing insulin sensitivity[1,9]
May decrease total cholesterol and triglyceride levels
May improve liver health by improving liver enzyme profile and bile secretion
Skin Specific Health Benefits of Berberine
In regards to skin health, Berberis vulgaris has been studied for its ability to reduce the production of skin lipids (or sebum).Acne vulgaris is a common skin condition that affects many individuals and one major contributing factor can be an overproduction of oil. The use of an oral extract of barberry was used in one study to treat moderate to severe acne. This treatment resulted in significant improvements in acne compared to the group that did not receive the barberry extract treatment.
Barberries may also possess antibacterial properties. For example, Berberis vulgaris extract, made from the fruit of the plant, has also been studied for its antibacterial properties in treating bacterial vaginosis (a bacterial overgrowth affecting the vaginal tissue causing irritation, pain, and abnormal vaginal discharge). In this study, women with bacterial vaginosis were treated with a common antibiotic gel called metronidazole. One group was treated with a metronidazole gel along with a 5% extract of Berberis vulgaris, and the other group was treated with only metronidazole gel. The group of women who received the combination treatment of Berberis vulgaris extract and metronidazole had higher improvement rates compared to the women who only received metronidazole. In addition, the women treated with the gel containing Berberis vulgaris extract did not have recurring infections during a 3-week follow-up, whereas 30% of the women treated with metronidazole only had relapse infections.
Taking the Whole Plant into Consideration
Although berberine is the main component studied in barberries, the whole plant and its properties should always be considered. The various studies mentioned were using extracts from various parts of the plant, and not all constituents of the plant were mentioned. For example, vitamin C may also have a beneficial impact on treating bacterial vaginosis, and may also be beneficial for the skin in terms of wound healing and the integrity of collagen. Future studies will provide more information on the possible health benefits of barberries.
For further reading on foods and skin health, click on the article links below:
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Zarei A, Changizi-Ashtiyani S, Taheri S, et al. A quick overview on some aspects of endocrinological and therapeutic effects of Berberis vulgaris L. Avicenna J Phytomed.2015;5(6):485-497; PMID: 26693406 Link to research.
Mahmoudvand H, Ayatollahi Mousavi SA, Sepahvand A, et al. Antifungal, Antileishmanial, and Cytotoxicity Activities of Various Extracts of Berberis vulgaris (Berberidaceae) and Its Active Principle Berberine. ISRN Pharmacol.2014;2014:602436; PMID: 24977052 Link to research.
Rahimi-Madiseh M, Lorigoini Z, Zamani-Gharaghoshi H, et al.: specifications and traditional uses. Iran J Basic Med Sci.2017;20(5):569-587; PMID: 28656092 Link to research.
Masoudi M, Kopaei MR, Miraj S. Comparison between the efficacy of metronidazole vaginal gel and Berberis vulgaris (Berberis vulgaris) combined with metronidazole gel alone in the treatment of bacterial vaginosis. Electron Physician.2016;8(8):2818-2827; PMID: 27757195 Link to research.
Abd El-Wahab AE, Ghareeb DA, Sarhan EE, et al. 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; PMID: 24007270 Link to research.
Arayne MS, Sultana N, Bahadur SS. The berberis story: Berberis vulgaris in therapeutics. Pak J Pharm Sci.2007;20(1):83-92; PMID: 17337435 Link to research.
Senchina DS, Hallam JE, Kohut ML, et al. Alkaloids and athlete immune function: caffeine, theophylline, gingerol, ephedrine, and their congeners. Exerc Immunol Rev.2014;20:68-93; PMID: 24974722 Link to research.
da Silva AR, de Andrade Neto JB, da Silva CR, et al. Berberine Antifungal Activity in Fluconazole-Resistant Pathogenic Yeasts: Action Mechanism Evaluated by Flow Cytometry and Biofilm Growth Inhibition in Candida spp. Antimicrob Agents Chemother.2016;60(6):3551-3557; PMID: 27021328 Link to research.
Yin J, Xing H, Ye J. Efficacy of berberine in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Metabolism.2008;57(5):712-717; PMID: 18442638 Link to research.
Fouladi RF. Aqueous extract of dried fruit of Berberis vulgaris L. in acne vulgaris, a clinical trial. J Diet Suppl.2012;9(4):253-261; PMID: 23038982 Link to research.