Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) – Importance and Health Benefits

Barberry is a berberine-containing plant that is used to fight infections due to its antibacterial, antifungal and antiprotozoal properties. Barberry can also be used to prevent and treat diabetes, aid digestion, cleanse your liver and gallbladder, and improve your cardiovascular health by improving hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias and ischemic heart disease.

According to a recent research that was being carried out on this plant, the Chemical compounds of Berberis vulgaris L. (Imanshahidi et al., 2008) are as follows:

Table 1

Chemical compounds of Berberis vulgaris L. (Imanshahidi et al., 2008).

Compound Type Part of plant
Acanthine Isoquinoline alkaloid Root
Root bark
Stem bark
Aesculetin Coumarin Fruit
Ascorbic acid Vitamin Fruit
Bargustanine Isoquinoline alkaloid Root
Berbamine Isoquinoline alkaloid Bark
Steam bark
Berberrubine Isoquinoline alkaloid Root
Berberine Isoquinoline alkaloid Root
Root bark
Stem bark

Clinical trial studies suggest that the aqueous extract of barberry is highly able to efficiently increase cardiac contractility and reduce blood pressure by reducing peripheral resistance. Berberine increases mRNA activity and increases the expression of LDL-C receptors, which in turn improve the plasma clearance through receptor-mediated endocytosis, which consequently leads to the inhibition of cholesterol biosynthesis of the cell. Hence, among the organic medicinal herbs, berberine may be an ideal candidate for the treatment of hypercholesterolemia.

Berberine has beneficial effects on inflammatory fever because of the presence of citric acid, malic acid, and ascorbic acid in its aqueous extract. The aqueous extract of barberry has a great potential as future green medicine (Pradhan et al., 2013).

Studies have shown that berberine reduces the density of serum cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL-C in patients and animal models with dyslipidemia. Berberine can act as an AMPK (5’adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase) and increases AMP/ATP and is able to inhibit the biosynthesis of ATP in mitochondria. Berberine actually increases insulin sensitivity and is capable of inhibiting alpha glucosidase and adipogenesis and thus acts as an anti-obesity agent. Furthermore, berberine can increase LDL receptor mRNA and as an antioxidant can scavenge free radicals (Shidfar et al., 2012 ).

The effects of barberry extract on liver function tests

Taheri and colleagues evaluated the effects of root extract of Berberis vulgaris and atorvastatin on the levels of liver enzymes in hyper cholesterolaemiac male rats and showed that the enzymes alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and alkaline phosphatase (ALP) increased in the control group receiving only fatty food. While these levels decreased in both the experimental groups receiving the extract of barberry and in the group receiving atorvastatin, no significant changes were observed in aspartate aminotransferase (AST).

Therefore, due to the antioxidant properties of the extract and its effects on the activity of liver enzymes, it could be suggested that the plant extracts could improve the function of liver enzymes.

The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of barberry extract

In a series of studies, the barbamine present in barberry was mentioned as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent (Eshraghi et al., 2011, JU et al., 1990). It is also shown that the antioxidant effect of barberry on hepatocytes is similar to those of silymarin which is a known hepato protective agent (Tsai et al., 2004 ).According to a study, the activities of antioxidant enzymes such as catalase and superoxide dismutase in the livers of the rats with barberry plant in their diets were higher than in the control group, implying the barberry’s inhibitory effect on lipid peroxidation through increasing the antioxidant enzymes (Murugesh et al., 2005). In a study in 2009, it was shown that the barberry plant had positive effects on the liver of diabetic rats and might be effective in preventing complications of diabetes as it regulated glucose homeostasis by decreasing glucose production and oxidative stress (Singh J et al., 2009 ). In the study by Lee et al. (2006) it was shown that the berberine in barberry could lower lipogenesis and had its inhibitory effects on lipid peroxidation (Lee et al., 2006 ). Therefore, we conclude that it is possible to use barberry as antioxidant supplements in illnesses such as diabetes, liver disease, and atherosclerosis as prevention or treatment (Eshraghi et al., 2011).

The effects of barberry extract on thyroid function

The thyroid gland, secreting thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) hormones, has undeniably profound effects on metabolism. Researchers found that blood lipid levels were inversely correlated with thyroid hormone levels and by increasing hormones, the lipid profile levels dropped.

Even in patients with hypothyroidism, the level of LDL cholesterol increases while it is reduced in hyperthyroidism (Zarei et al., 2012a ). Studies also show that levels of blood fats such as cholesterol and triglyceride (TG) increase in groups with high fat diet. There is also a direct correlation between fat and leptin, while the correlation between T3 and leptin is an inversely significant one.

However, blood lipid levels do not correlate with TSH levels. This actually represents an association between fat, leptin, and thyroid hormones (ShekarForosh et al., 2012; Zarei et al., 2013b). Accordingly, Zarei et al. in a study surveyed the effects of the root extract of barberry and atorvastatin on thyroid hormone levels in rats with hypercholesterolemia.

The results showed that in the groups receiving the extract of the barberry roots and atorvastatin the levels of thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) increased while the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) decreased in the groups receiving atorvastatin.

The groups treated with the extract of barberry root did not show significant changes in TSH levels. The increased levels of thyroid hormone and decreased TSH levels in the group receiving atorvastatin were possibly due to negative feedback effect of thyroid hormones on TSH. The increased levels of T3 andT4 with no effects on TSH levels in the experimental groups receiving barberry root extract indicated euthyroid hyper thyroxinemia.

These changes might be caused by increased plasma proteins, including albumin, reduced fat and leptin levels, and increased neuropeptide Y as well as stimulated hypothalamic para venericular nuclei which were possibly made by alkaloid compounds found in the plant. It seems that the extract at above-mentioned doses caused pathological changes in the pituitary-thyroid axis (Zarei et al., 2015).

Due to multiple properties of the root and fruit of barberry on controlling the complications of diabetes, reducing and controlling lipid profiles and liver enzymes, and its obvious antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its ability to influence the secretion of the thyroid hormones, therefore this plant can be considered as a drug candidate for the prevention and control of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, thyroid disorders and liver disease.


This article was part of the research project of the research committee and ethics committee No: 90-123-12 of Arak University of Medical Sciences, Arak, Iran. The authors would like to thank the moral and financial support provided by the vice-presidency of Research of Arak University of Medical Sciences.

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