Oregon Grape Root-Natural Remedy for Skin Conditions and Liver function

By: Nina Bergstedt

Oregon grape root is renowned among herbalists for its ability to stimulate liver function, improve the flow of bile, and for blood cleansing. Oregon grape root uses have traditionally included treating both liver congestion and infectious conditions of both the stomach and intestines. Another benefit of Oregon grape root is its functioning as an antimicrobial.

When used on the skin, Oregon grape has been found to combat certain skin irritations. Studies have concluded that herbal remedies are often more effective on dermatological conditions than pharmaceuticals, and the Oregon grapes power to help fight psoriasis and atopic dermatitis would seem to support that claim.

Oregon grape root contains a number of alkaloids and because of this it has a very bitter taste and can take some getting used to if taken straight. However, the positive benefits of these alkaloids far outweigh the momentary discomfort that their bitter taste may cause. In China, where Oregon grape root is also substituted for the herb coptis, studies have shown that one of the alkaloids the plant contains, berbamine, can help strengthen bone marrow and assist chemotherapy and radiation patients in their recovery – not bad for a little shrub grown in the Pacific Northwest.

The bitterness of this herb also has a positive effect on the digestive tract. It has a sedative effect on the smooth muscles lining the digestive tract, and stimulates the flow of bile, which loosens waste in the digestive tract and helps prevent a myriad of complications, such as constipation, stomach cramps, diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, gallbladder disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.

As the name indicates, the Oregon grape plant is a common shrub found mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Its year-round foliage most closely resembles holly, making it popular with florists. The golden yellow roots, however, are where the medicinal qualities lie and are commonly harvested for these purposes.

The root is traditionally prepared in one of two methods – either steeping the root to create a tea, or using the root to create a tincture that can be used in a variety of ways. In addition, the tincture can also be used to create a topical ointment for use on your skin.

Uses and benefits

Like the barberry, Oregon grape contains the alkaloids berberine, berbamine, canadine, and hydrastine.

It is believed that these alkaloids inhibit the ability of bacteria, such as E. coli, to attach to human cells and thus prevent the spread of infection. There is evidence that as an ointment Oregon grape it alleviates the symptoms of psoriasis. It is also used in small doses to treat diarrhea and in larger doses to treat constipation.

One of the primary actions of this herb is an improvement of blood flow to the liver. It also stimulates intestinal secretions and bile flow. It is sometimes used in the treatment of jaundice, hepatitis, cirrhosis and general digestive problems.

Laboratory tests have shown that Oregon grape can kill or suppress the growth of candida and other fungal infections, staphylococcus, streptococcus, E. coli, Entamoeba histolytica, Trichomonas vaginalis, Giardia lamblia, Vibrio cholerae, and other harmful microbes.

Animal studies have indicated that it may enhance the performance of some antibiotics. No results from clinical trials are available at this time.

A tincture of the herb is used traditionally as both oral and topical herbal remedy to treat eczemaacneconjunctivitis and herpes.

Additional historical and traditional uses include the treatment of gall bladder disease, hemorrhages and a few forms of cancer.

Oregon grape shows promise as a treatment for auto immune diseases of the skin, but there are currently no conclusive clinical results. An herbalist or physician can provide advice on whether this treatment is suitable for an individual patient.

In addition to berberine and other alkaloids, also found in barberry and goldenseal, Oregon grape contains phytochemicals, including jatrorrhizine, hydrastine, columbamine, tetrahydroberberine, tannins and oxyacanthine. Barberry contains more nutrients and vitamins, but it is thought that both barberry and Oregon grape help boost the immune system and create a barrier to bacteria in the lining of the intestines and the mucous membranes.

Possible Side Effects and Interactions

Oregon grape root is generally regarded as safe when taken in the recommended amounts but pregnant and breastfeeding women it should not use it because like other herbs containing berberine it can worsen jaundice in infants. An overdose can cause diarrhea, kidney inflammation and a feeling of haziness and stupor. It may also interact with other herbs and certain pharmaceutical drugs and reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics such as doxycycline and tetracycline.

A Powerful Anti-microbial

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus also commonly called MRSA, is a serious staph infection in humans that is resistant to pharmaceutical antibiotics.

About 5,500 people die each year in the US due to a MRSA infection. Over two-thirds of the people who contract MRSA can relate it to a hospital visit.

That is where Oregon Grape Herb comes in. A constituent of Oregon Grape Root, berberine, is being studied because it contains a specific multidrug resistance pump inhibitor (MDR Inhibitor) named 5′-methoxyhydnocarpin (5′-MHC).

Basically, what this means is that it works to decrease bacterial resistance to antibiotics. A simplified view of how MRSA works in the body is that it has a pump in its cell and when antibiotics enter that cell the pump immediately pumps out the antibiotics so it can have no effect on the MRSA cell.

5′-MHC, which is derived from berberine-containing plants like Oregon grape root, stops that pumping action so the antibiotics can have an effect on the MRSA cell. Some herbalists are using Oregon grape herb alongside antibiotics to increase their effectiveness against this deadly infection.

A Strong Antimicrobial

Oregon grape root has been used to address minor to severe infections for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It was highly regarded among eclectic physicians for use against syphilis.

Berberis aquifolium has won its reputation chiefly as a remedy for the syphilitic taint. The more chronic the conditions or results of the disease, the more it has been praised. Some claim that if given early it will abort the tertiary stage, but this of course depends in most cases upon the resisting powers of the body and the care the patient takes of himself. 
– Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D. (1922)

Infections remedied with Oregon Grape Root

  • eye infections
  • vaginal infections
  • wounds on the skin
  • mouth infections
  • inflammatory bowel conditions
  • infectious diarrhea (e.g., giardia and other parasites)
  • infections in the upper digestive tract (h. pylori)
  • urinary tract infections
  • sore throats

Berberine

You’ll often see Oregon grape root referred to as a “berberine-containing plant”. Berberine is a chemical constituent found in several different plants that has been studied extensively. Studies have shown berberine can lower blood glucose levels, stop infections and modulate inflammation.

So while plants like goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), and Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense) all contain berberine, they aren’t necessarily used in the exact same manner. Research on the differentiations is strongly recommended.

For the Liver

Oregon grape root shines as a hepatic, or as an herb for the liver. In western herbalism most bitter herbs are considered to have some effect on the liver and the gallbladder. The bitter taste on the tongue stimulates saliva, which then creates a whole cascade of digestive functions and digestive enzymatic secretions. Part of the bitter taste reflex is to promote the secretion of bile from the liver and the gallbladder, which helps with digestion, mainly in digesting fats.

Liver congestion is one of the main underlying causes of many issues in the body. A combination of dandelion root and Oregon grape root can be used for a wide range of liver issues.

The Liver and the Female Reproductive System

Because the liver filters hormones, a congested liver can be the root cause of many menstrual problems, including irregular menstruation, flooding, cramping, bloating, headaches and PMS. It can also be the underlying cause of more severe dysfunctions in the female reproductive system, such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts and fibroids. Hepatic herbs like Oregon grape root can be combined with lymphatic herbs and blood- moving herbs (and lifestyle changes) to address a variety of these complaints.

The Liver and the Skin

The liver is a main organ of elimination; when it is not functioning optimally other systems of elimination may be overwhelmed. We can clearly see this with the connection of the liver and the skin. Oftentimes a congested liver can play part of the role in things like skin rashes, eczema and psoriasis. Alterative herbs like Oregon grape root and dandelion are often used for people with these types of skin afflictions.

In moist eczema it has acted most satisfactorily, but has usually been given in conjunction with other treatment. Dr. Soper, in 1884, reported in the Therapeutic Gazette a most intractable case of moist eczema of an acute character covering the entire body. No other alternative was given. The case was cured in four weeks.  – Ellingwood

The Liver and Constipation or Sluggish Digestion

When the liver isn’t functioning optimally, digestion takes a hard hit! Inability to digest fats, bloating, gas, hemorrhoids and constipation can all be attributed to liver problems. Adding small amounts of Oregon grape root as part of a bitters blends help move the liver in the case of sluggish digestion.

The Liver and the Eyes and Head

In Traditional Chinese Medicine the liver is associated with the eyes. Dry eyes, red eyes, excessively tearing eyes, macular degeneration, etc. can all have a base in liver function. Also, some types of headaches are caused by poor liver function.

The Liver and the Musculoskeletal System and Energy Levels

If the liver isn’t able to filter the blood and remove toxins and metabolic wastes it can result in feeling aches and pains all over. It can also poorly effect energy levels; the liver is especially indicated when a person feels groggy upon waking.

Oregon Grape Leaves

The leaf tea was used for kidney and stomach ailments, as well as rheumatism and lack of appetite. …the dried leaf is an excellent anti-microbial styptic for herpes and psoriatic skin lesions. They contain alkaloids that act on cardiac and smooth muscle as an anti-spasmodic.  – Robert Dale Rogers

The young leaves can be eaten. The older leaves become very tough and quite spiky. The young tender leaves have a slightly sour taste reminiscent of a citrus fruit.

Oregon Grape Berries

They also brewed the berries to relieve the ache of sore kidneys. When the berries turned black, they were used to treat sores, or put on painful skin boils. They were crushed onto the boil and pulled off when dry and itchy. According to Duke, “California Indians used the berry decoction to stimulate the appetite”


The flowers of Oregon grape herb are some of the first flowers to appear in the spring and are yellow with parts of six. The flowers are edible, keeping in mind that any you eat won’t turn into berries later in the season. They are slightly sour in taste and are nice sprinkled on salad.

In the late summer and fall the berries can be bursting on these plants, especially if they have access to a lot of water and sunshine.

As the winter comes on some leaves temporarily lose their chlorophyl and become bright red. The roots can be harvested at any time of the year but are ideally harvested in the fall or early spring.

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