A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.
The nomenclature of crude medication has many confusing curiosities, one of these being that the medication known as barberry or berberis is a product of not of a species of Berberis but of a species that belongs to the genus Mahonia. A change in the placement of species in a different genus is the main reason for this confusion, what has in fact happened is that several species that yield the rhizome and roots - the parts which are underground - used to produce this medication were once classified as distinct Berberis species but they all have now been included in the genus Mahonia. These plants include species such as M. aquifolium and the species called M. nervosa, which are both commonly called Oregon grape. These two very attractive members belonging to the family Berberidaceae are both evergreen shrubs that bear holly like leaves and produce bluish black berries as fruits. The species M. aquifolium is usually the taller of the two growing up to three feet tall, while M. nervosa grows up to two feet tall at most. Though often mistaken to be a source of the medication, the common barberry, Berberis vulgaris L., was never a source of the medication, even when it had the official status -however, the remedy made from its bark, its roots and its stem possess similar active principles and is used in treating similar symptoms. In Germany, making claims about the uses of the fruits, the bark and the root of this plant is not permitted, due to the fact that the claimed effectiveness and the many traditional uses of this plant is not scientifically proven or recorded in any clinical study.
Native Americans reportedly used barberry to treat cases of general debility and to boost flagging appetite. The root of the plant was used as a bitter tonic by the early settlers after they observed the many uses of the plant by native Americans. The mediation was additionally believed to have great value in the treatment of all kinds of ulcers, in treating heartburn and related symptoms and in dealing with a variety of stomach problems especially when it was used in small doses. However, traditional observation has been that taking large doses produces a strong cathartic effect in the person.
The physiological effects induced by the barberry are due to the presence of a number of isoquinoline alkaloids in the plant, in particular chemicals such as berberine, berbamine and oxyacanthine are the main agents that induce all the physiological changes in the body. A bactericidal action is also exhibited by several of the alkaloids present in the plant and the chemical berberine in particular is also effective against organisms such as amoeba and trypanosomes in the body of the person. The alkaloid berberine also possesses an anti-convulsion, sedative and uterine stimulating property in addition to its other properties. While a hypotensive effect is induced by the chemical berbamine - this chemical lowers the blood pressure of the person.
Due to the observed lack of an anti-inflammatory action from the alkaloids found in the bark, further investigation was carried out and resulted in the identification of two phenolic compounds, one called 3-hydroxy-4-methoxy-phenyl ethyl alcohol and another called syringaresinol; these two have shown possible anti-inflammatory actions and have been isolated from the methanol extracts of the plants.
However, even though they possess all these properties, the barberry and its alkaloids are not considered the most effective of herbal medications - the principal alkaloid being the chemical berberine. The crude plant material made of barberry used in bitter tonics has also largely been discontinued in herbal medicine. Moreover, the use of berberine salts that had vogue for some time as an additive in eye drops due to their astringent effect has been discontinued.
The physicians of past centuries related the yellow wood of the common barberry as a likely sign that the plant was a treatment for the condition called jaundice - most commonly brought on by a diseased liver or by the presence of gallstones - they may have related the yellow color of the wood to yellowish skin of the patient affected by jaundice. This observation is based on a common medical theory of the past called the doctrine of signatures - the main point of the theory being a relation of the plant's appearance or other characteristics to some divine sign or to the kinds of disorder or injury it could be used to treat.
A plant pigment called tannin and a chemical called berberine are found in the bark covering the root and the stem of the plant, the presence of this chemical in the bark may be the reason for the effectiveness of this plant in the treatment of diarrhea and related disorders of digestion. The berberine found in the common barberry is used in many modern pharmaceutical products meant for the treatment of eye disorders and the traditional uses of this plant for the treatment of bloodshot eyes appears to have some substance as berberine is effective against eye disorders. Syrup made from a mixture of the common barberry with some fennel seed was normally used as a cure against plague in ancient Egypt. The probable effectiveness of this medication is supported by modern research that suggests that this remedy could be of some value due to the strong bactericidal properties of the plants used - the remedy may have helped ward off many infectious diseases, however, its effectiveness against plague is doubtful. Barberry wood is preferred for marquetry work, while the berries have traditionally been used in cooking.
Stem bark, root bark, berries.
The gallbladder is positively affected by the barberry, the medication leads to an improvement in the flow of bile and results in a reduction of symptoms such as pain in the gallbladder; it can reduce the chances of gallstone formation and is helpful in dealing with jaundice and other bile related disorders. The potent antiseptic effect of the barberry is of great help in treating cases of amebic dysentery, in the treatment of water borne disorders like cholera and in treating any of the other gastrointestinal infections which are caused by bacteria. The liver is also thought to be positively benefited by the barberry and many herbalists prescribe this medication for the treatment of hepatitis and other disorders of the liver. Barberry bark has anti-diarrhea and astringent qualities and this induces rapid healing along the intestinal wall, barberry has a highly beneficial and potent effect on the functioning of the digestive system as a whole and is used in the treatment of all sorts of disorders of the digestive system. Chronic skin conditions usually treated using plants like the Oregon grape – botanical name B. aquifolium and the goldenseal - Hydrasis canadensis, can also be treated using the barberry - chronic disorders like eczema and psoriasis are effectively treated using barberry. As an eye wash, barberry decoction makes for a gentle and effective remedy, however, the decoction must be diluted sufficiently before it is used on the eyes.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Barberry has been naturalized in North America; however, it is a native of Europe and was originally found only there. The plant is grown not only as a medicinal herb but is also cultivated as a common garden plant. The barberry berries are collected during the autumn, while the bark is collected both in the spring and in the autumn.
Barberry contains isoquinoline alkaloids, including berberine and berbamine. Berberine is strongly antibacterial and amebicidal and stimulates bile secretion. Berbamine is strongly antibacterial. Many of the alkaloids are thought to be cancer-inhibiting.
Barberry can be made into an herbal decoction: To prepare this decoction, place a teaspoonful of barberry bark in cup of cold water and boil the bark for ten to fifteen minutes. The solution can be cooled and then strained; it can be drunk thrice daily for treating a variety of disorders.
Barberry may be made into an herbal decoction: To make the decoction, use one teaspoon of the powdered bark or the same amount of the fresh or dried root and boil this in a cup of water - 250 ml, this decoction can be used to gargle for the treating ulcers and a sore throat. Drink a cup of this decoction, a dose of about 250 ml, once before each meal to deal with stomach ulcers and in case of allergic diarrhea. The decoction can also be use in an herbal compress to treat bacterial eye infections. The ripe fruit of the barberry can be made into jams, tarts, compotes or jelly for the treatment of ultra-sensitive intestines. To treat biliary insufficiency, the mother tincture prepared in alcohol can be used with great effect; the same tincture is good for treating infections along the lower abdomen or cases of metrorrhagia. Doses of the tincture can be one teaspoon, thrice a day for a dosage regimen lasting ten days or longer.
Depurative wine and tonic
Combine the wine and the berries. Macerate for 1 month away from light. Stir regularly. Strain and add the sugar. Shake well. Can be stored for 6 months. Drink 1 oz (25 ml), pure or diluted in water, before each meal to enrich the blood, drain the gallbladder, increase the number of platelets or combat a microbial infection.
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