A couple of years ago, my son-in-law asked me to look after his big, powerful dog for a week while he and his wife went away on a short break. As I live on the edge of Epping Forest, I took the dog for walks in the forest twice a day, which he loved because of all the intriguing smells of wildlife.
At 10 pm one moonless, overcast Friday night, I took the dog out, armed with a small torch. When we reached a clearing, thanks to the abundant rain we had recently had that month, I felt myself slowly sinking into the sodden clay soil. Quickly extricating my left foot resulted in all my weight being transferred to my right foot, which then sank more quickly and even deeper into the mud.
By that time, it was pitch black in the forest. When the dog sensed another animal, he shot away from me with so much force that the dog's lead around me spun me a full 360 degrees, while my right foot remained fixed in a stationary position deep in the clay. I heard a sharp cracking sound. When I extricated my right foot from the clay, I saw my foot hanging down limply. It was clear that I had a compound fracture just above my ankle and, feeling with my right hand, I discovered that I was bleeding profusely, and that both the shin and calf bones had broken and were sticking out into the night air. I knew I couldn't walk and that I couldn't let the dog go because he was unfamiliar with the forest.
I had my mobile with me, but there is no signal in the forest, so there was nothing else to do but crawl back on my hands and knees, holding the dog lead, while trying to keep my right leg elevated as much possible to avoid dragging the dangling foot, which was attached only by skin. When the dog and I finally got back to my neighbour's house, I was exhausted.
Luckily, 10 minutes later, another neighbour was driving home and, catching sight of me in his headlights, called an ambulance, which rushed me to Royal London Hospital.
The next day, I was operated on by a senior orthopaedic surgeon, who expertly reattached my right foot with the aid of some intricate metalwork. With my leg and foot in a plaster cast, I remained in hospital for quite some time as there was rather a lot of swelling. But it soon became clear that I had been infected with a multidrug-resistant strain of one of the so-called 'superbugs', Klebsiella pneumoniae, usually referred to simply as 'MRSA'. Although MRSA refers to a specific superbug—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—the acronym has come to be used for any infection resistant to all known orthodox antibiotics. And the one I had was particularly resistant to any sort of conventional medicine.
Various attempts by the hospital to deal with the bug using standard antibiotics failed totally. But from my long experience of botanical medicine, I knew how to treat this infection naturally. However, herbal medicine is prohibited in standard hospitals in the UK, so when you're in hospital, even naturopaths like me aren't allowed to self-medicate.
The only way to get hold of the herbs I needed was to smuggle them in. I asked my wife to buy two different coloured bottles of Lucozade Sport Drinks from a supermarket, empty them out, and then fill one with a tincture of Berberis vulgaris (barberry) and the other with Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal). Both tinctures contain berberine as the active constituent, but I decided to take them on alternate days so my body wouldn't become too accustomed to either. Four times each day, I furtively took 1 Tbsp (about 15 mL) of one of the herbal tinctures in a little water. In three weeks, my drug-resistant infection had cleared.
Eventually, I had to undergo another operation—this time to remove some of the metal hardware from the side of my ankle—and was promptly infected again. And again, the antibiotics couldn't shift the drug-resistant infection, so I asked my wife to smuggle in the same two tinctures in the same way and I took them again as before. Three weeks later, this second infection was gone and has never returned.
Today, I am able to walk absolutely normally. I can move all my toes and make the most intricate movements with my right foot. I am extremely grateful to that surgical maestro and also grateful for those two all-purpose natural antibiotics, which are among the greater super-herbs in my arsenal.
Natural born superbug killers
I've used the two herbal tinctures many times over the years to kill the toughest of superbugs, which I learned about while doing some intriguing research into the royal use of homeopathy. Besides the principal use of certain homeopathic treatments, homeopathy also uses mother tinctures to kill certain bacteria.
Ronald W. Davey, the former physician to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who wrote the foreword to Dana Ullman's book, Discovering Homeopathy (North Atlantic Books, 1993), John M. Grange, author of Mycobacterial Diseases (Edward Arnold, 1980) and their colleagues published two relevant studies clearly demonstrating that 73 homeopathic mother tinctures have the ability to prevent or inhibit infection by 20 different strains of microbial organisms, including MRSA, a strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa regarded by orthodox medicine as multidrug-resistant and K. penumoniae, the superbug I was infected by.1
In fact, 48 diluted homeopathic mother tinctures have proved to be natural broad-spectrum antimicrobials, with nine of them demonstrating activity against three strains of Pseudomonas and four of them against K. pneumoniae, while a further 25 are effective against various staphylococcal bugs.
As the investigators concluded, the level of activity of some of the tinctures was similar to that of Alexander Fleming's original broth cultures of penicillium, from which he discovered penicillin.2 The researchers also tested for interactions between both herbs and drugs and other herbs, and found that certain pairs doubled their individual effectiveness.
Based on this and other evidence, I have been using many of these tinctures for 27 years with considerable success in patients coming to me with drug-resistant infections—often acquired in hospital.
Berberine is considered an all-purpose herbal with antibiotic activity.3 While several berberine-containing plants have long been widely used in herbal medicine in different parts of the world, I stick with B. vulgaris and H. canadensis after I discovered a South Korean study of MRSA infection showing that 1-50 mL of berberine considerably decreased MRSA adhesion to cells and cellular invasion, while boosting the killing power of antibiotics like ampicillin and oxacillin.4
In test-tube studies a chemical compound isolated from Berberis plants was found to inhibit so-called 'multidrug resistance (MDR) pumps'. These are protein transporters used by bacteria to protect themselves against natural and pharmaceutical antibiotics by drawing the drugs and other toxins out of cells, giving the bugs free rein to invade cells and cause infections. Indeed, berberine was able to disable the MDR actions of S. aureus, and also inhibit the growth of Microcystis aeruginosa, a freshwater type of toxic blue-green algae.5
Consequently I have successfully used both Berberis and goldenseal to fight against bacterial pneumonia, sepsis and the like.
Gut and other infections
Best of all, berberine doesn't diminish or kill the normal bacterial flora residing in the human gut, making its use superior to conventional antibiotics like co-amoxiclav and flucloxacillin, which can have such lasting, devastating effects on our gut microflora population.
It's precisely because these herbs spare the good bacteria in the gut that I started using berberine for so-called 'gut dysbiosis'—the result of an imbalance in the gut microflora—which can lead to a predominance of various microorganisms and other bad gut bugs that can cause infections and disease. These include various forms of Candida (vaginal and oral thrush), parasites like Giardia lamblia (giardiasis) and Entamoeba histolytica (amoebic dysentery).
Berberine is also effective against Cryptococcus neoformans (sometimes fatal lung disease and meningitis), and Microsporum gypseum and Trichophyton mentagrophytes (ringworm), leishmaniasis, a parasitic protozoal disease affecting the skin and organs, and even tuberculosis, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis.6
Urinary tract infections
One interesting aspect of berberine is that its antibiotic activity becomes more powerful, the higher the pH of an organism .7 The pH of a liquid (including liquids inside a human or animal measures the its acidity or alkalinity; the lower the pH measures below 7, the more acidic the substance is; the higher the pH above 7, the more alkaline.
When measured in a test tube, the antimicrobial activity of berberine in a pH of 8 is three or more times greater than it is at a pH of 7 and one to four times greater than at a pH of 6, when the liquid is more acidic. This suggests that consuming a high alkaline diet (eating more plant foods and less red meat and dairy) will improve its clinical effectiveness particularly in the treatment of urinary tract infections.
Berberine has also been shown to increase the blood supply to the spleen, the principal organ of the immune system.8 This may promote spleen function by increasing the release of compounds like tuftsin, involved in the formation of antibodies, which boosts the ability of immune-system cells to ingest bacteria.9
The immune-response effects of berberine means that it can also activate macrophages—immune-system white blood cells that ingest foreign bodies and infectious pathogens. Since it also has an ability to inhibit tumour cell formation, this suggests that berberine may also have anticancer activity.10
Berberine-containing plants have traditionally been used, in many parts of the world, as antipyretics, or fever-reducers), with effects that are three times as potent as aspirin.11
Water-based extracts of berberine-containing plants have even been used in a variety of eye problems, including infections, by different peoples around the world. Berberine has shown remarkable beneficial effects in the treatment of trachoma, a serious eye disease caused by Chlamydia trachomatis, the bug also responsible for the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in the US.12 According to the World Health Organization, trachoma is a known public-health problem in 42 countries, and is responsible for the infectious, irreversible blindness or visual impairment in nearly two million people worldwide.13
My long experience of using berberine-containing tinctures has convinced me that berberine is effective for treating the majority of common gastrointestinal infections.
In clinical studies, berberine has shown significant success in the treatment of acute infectious diarrhoea caused by a variety of pathogens, including Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhimurium, Vibrio cholerae and Shigella dysenteriae.14
A number of laboratory studies have shown that berberine even successfully fight E. histolytica, the cause of amoebic dysentery, characterized by loose faeces, and stomach pain and cramps.15
In lab experiments berberine-containing plants have also been particularly effective in combatting diarrhoea caused by enterotoxins—toxic proteins released in the gut by pathogens like E. coli and V. cholerae—by inhibiting up to 70 per cent of the gut's responses to these toxins.16
After extensive searching through the scientific evidence, I've found only a single study showing berberine to be no better than a placebo for non-cholera diarrhoea.17
For people travelling to areas of poor water quality, taking berberine-containing herbs or tinctures one week before, during and 10 days after the trip is usually effective for warding off holiday tummy.
Gall bladder inflammation
Cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gall bladder, can also occasionally cause episodes of biliary colic, or pain due to an obstruction (often a stone) in bile flow from the gall bladder. Several clinical studies have shown that berberine can stimulate the secretion of bile and bilirubin, a compound involved in the breakdown of red blood cells.18
This may have beneficial effects as cholesterol, the most common component of gallstones, leaves the body almost exclusively through bile, so the more bile, the less opportunity for gallstones to form.
Berberine can also help patients with cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver, By inhibiting an enzyme produced by bacteria in the large intestine the herb keeps levels of tyramine, derived from the amino-acid tyrosine, low in the blood.19
This is a particular boon to cirrhosis sufferers since tyramine, which helps to regulate blood pressure, is also thought to be responsible for hepatic encephalopathy, a brain disorder due to the liver's failure to remove toxins in the blood, which can lead to personality changes, impaired cognitive and even coma.
The accumulation of tyramine and its derivatives may also lower peripheral resistance, which is related to blood pressure and suggests that the blood vessels are dilated, so lowering the resistance in arteries. The result is a high cardiac output, but with reduced kidney function and cerebral dysfunction.
When not to use berberine
There are only two caveats to consider with these two wonder herbs: avoid berberine if you're pregnant or breastfeeding; and never take berberine with azithromycin or clarithromycin because of adverse drug interactions.
And it goes without saying that for these kinds of serious conditions, work with a qualified herbalist or naturopath.
All-purpose bug killer
Berberine has long shown selective antimicrobial activity against a wide range of bacteria, fungi and protozoa, including:
Staphylococcus species (spp)
Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)
Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus)
Berberine for diabetes
Among its many amazing actions, berberine can lower blood sugar.
Metformin is a widely used first-line antidiabetic drug prescribed by GPs to treat type 2 diabetes particularly in the overweight and obese, and in those with normal kidney function.
In one small study of 36 newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes patients, the drug was pitted against berberine, which was able to lower blood glucose levels as effectively as the drug when taken at similar doses (500 mg, three times/day) for three months. Berberine also reduced fasting blood glucose (FBG; taken in the morning before breakfast) from 190.8 mg/dL to 124.2 mg/dL. (In non-diabetics, the FBG level is usually less than 100 mg/dL.)
Berberine beat metformin in regulating both lipid and glucose metabolism, significantly lowering triglycerides and total cholesterol far more than the drug.1
A second study by the same team of researchers of 48 adults, whose type 2 diabetes was poorly controlled despite treatment, were given the same dosage of berberine for three months on top of their diabetes treatment. After just seven days, berberine lowered their FBG levels from 172.8 mg/dL to 140.4 mg/dL, while blood glucose levels after a meal (postprandial) fell from 266.4 mg/dL to 210.6 mg/dL.
Over the next week, both glucose measures dropped even further, reaching levels that were below the levels they started the study with (baseline levels)—levels the patients were able to maintain. Fasting blood insulin was reduced by 28 per cent, while levels of total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol also decreased significantly.1
Success stories from my case files
Berberis vulgaris and Hydrastis canadensis have proved to be valuable herbs in my many years of practice as a medical herbalist.
Type 2 diabetes
In 1992, early in my use of Berberis vulgaris (barberry), a patient came to me just after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). She also had type 2 diabetes, but asked me to specifically focus on fixing her gut problem. Diagnostic tests showed she had gut fermentation, with certain unwanted bacteria and yeasts were present in her upper intestines, causing foods to be fermented rather than digested.
I prescribed 1 Tbsp (15 mL) of Berberis tincture twice daily, along with a supportive gut-healing diet supplemented by probiotics.
This regimen fixed her digestive problems in about eight weeks. But to my astonishment, her diabetes also disappeared and, even at six months after stopping the herb, it was still gone.
A soldier who had been stationed near Kabul, in Afghanistan, came to see me with ulcers of the skin, mouth and nose. His skin disease had been diagnosed as mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, which is transmitted by the bite of certain types of sandflies, and was not responding to the usual treatment.
I prescribed 15 mL of Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal) tincture in water four times daily.
At the end of around three months, all of his ulcerations had healed, and both his blood and parasite tests showed that he was clear of any infection.
This disorder happens when amyloid, an abnormal blood protein produced in bone marrow, builds up anywhere in the nerves, tissues and organs. When the protein is deposited just below the skin, the condition is called 'cutaneous amyloidosis'.
While medicine has very few answers for the condition, it's generally considered to be the result of a variety of chronic inflammatory diseases, including ulcerative colitis. That was the very condition for which a 42-year-old woman came to consult me, which is when I learned she also had the skin problem.
I put her on a healing diet, plus Berberis tincture and probiotics for the colitis. After nine weeks, she experienced a marked improvement—indeed, her stools had returned to normal with no more blood. But to everyone's surprise, including mine, there was also a visible improvement in her skin condition.
Only years later was it confirmed that berberine, among its many other beneficial effects, can also inhibit the production of amyloid.1 The patient's inflammatory gut appeared to be the trigger for the amyloidosis, and once the colitis was cleared, the skin disorder also disappeared and never returned.
Dr Gaier's healing recipe
For most cases, the effective dose of either Berberis vulgaris (1:5, 25 per cent alcohol) or Hydrastis canadensis (1:10, 60 per cent alcohol) tincture is 15 mL (1 Tbsp) twice daily in water (or pineapple juice to disguise the bitter taste), or three times daily in severe cases—whatever the condition.
For methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—or any other drug-resistant superbug—the herbs may need to be taken four times a day (as I did—see main story).
These herbs should be taken for about three weeks, and I suggest alternating between the two tinctures to avoid the development of tolerance. At this time by European Union law, these herbs can only be prescribed by a licensed herbalist or naturopath.