Traditional use describes several different ways this plant can help treat simple ailments. Talk to your doctor about medicines that incorporate Mahonia or its compounds as an active ingredient!
- all about the Mahonia berry
First of all – words of caution
Berberine, a compound not suited for young brains
One of the key active compounds of Mahonia is a molecule called berberine.
This is a compound that has been shown to affect the brain system, especially young, immature nerve cells.
- Avoid mahonia and other berberine-containing plants when you are pregnant and/or lactating.
- Don’t give it to children either, especially newborns.
- Indeed, this compound is carried over to the baby through breastmilk when nursing, and through the placenta when the baby isn’t yet born.
- More on why Mahonia requires caution.
Interactions and consulting doctors
For adults who aren’t nursing or breastfeeding, this molecule isn’t toxic.
However, there hasn’t been much modern research on the topic, so always consult with your family physician before taking on a course of Mahonia products and extracts.
Furthermore, it’s been proven that Mahonia extracts interact with other medicines. It modifies the rate with which the medicines are broken down by the body, acting on the liver functions.
It’s important that your consulting doctor be fully aware of your intention to pursue a course, since it might interfere with other treatments you might already be taking.
Stomach disorders & Intestinal discomfort
Roots and stems of this plant have traditionally been used for medicine. Usually, they are harvested in autumn. This is when the plant has replenished its stores of nutrients and is ready to face winter.
When taken internally, natives would treat dyspepsia and other discomforts related to the stomach and bowels.
One of the common ailments Oregon grape holly helps cure is diarrhea. This is only in small amounts, since eating too many berries will cause light diarrhea instead of curing it.
In cases of upset stomach, it also helps normalize things. Similarly, heartburn is partly controlled and alleviated.
Furthermore, Mahonia has been used to treat stomach ulcers.
It has tonic virtues and also reduces infections.
Additionally, Mahonia triggers release of bile, stimulating the liver and the digestive tract. Lastly, it’s also a strong diuretic. This means it enhances urinary functions in the body.
Antimutagenic & antioxidant
Reducing mutations in our body cells
Like other plants that are rich in flavonoids, some compounds in Mahonia have antimutagenic properties.
- This is especially the case for berberine, a special compound found in roots & stems.
- To a lesser degree, berberine is also present in the seed pits (but only trace amounts in the berry flesh).
Antimutagenic means they work to reduce and cancel out mutations that occur in our body cells. When one learns that cancerous cells usually result from such mutations, that’s good news!
It works in individual cells as they multiply.
- One way it helps is to help the enzymes responsible for coding genetic material to “get things right”.
- Another is to remove cellular by-products from tissues, which tend to react with DNA and distorts it. These “waste” molecules are called “oxidants”.
Mahonia berries, which are edible, are beginning to attract a lot of attention. In the quest for “new superfoods“, the food industry has rediscovered this ancient berry and its many properties!
Two major compounds in Mahonia berries display strong antioxidant activity. These are:
- a phenolic compound called chlorogenic acid. In laboratory tests, it has been shown to reduce blood pressure.
- another phenolic compound, an anthocyanin, specifically cyanidin-63-O-glucoside
They are the most abundant phenols and anthocyanins that can be found in “Oregon grape holly” berries, but there are others, too.
- Together, chemists measure each compound to produce a “profile” or pattern for each plant, plant part, and variety.
- Different species, varieties, locations, and plant age all result in different profiles… which is why, for Mahonia wine as for grape vine wine, each batch is certainly unique!
Anthocyanins are a category of chemicals naturally produced by plants. They’re often bright red in color. In blueberries, they’re what give the deep blue color, but for Mahonia they turn out blood-red. They influence:
- medicinal effects
of plants and berries. Many (but not specifically those of Mahonia) are used as food coloring.
Anthocyanins and phenols are powerful antioxidants.
- Mahonia berries rank above bogberry, bilberry, elderberry, barberry, lingonberry, cranberry, and even currant and gooseberry in terms of phenol content!
As a balm or ointment, it has been shown to reduce psoriasis.
- Root and stems are crushed and blended with some type of cream, gel, or other ointment base.
It’s suspected to have antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial activity. In the case of itch-causing skin ailments, this helps reduce spread of the issue, is very soothing, and prevents relapse.
For another skin disorder, eczema, traditional use was also claimed to be effective. However, to this day, modern research hasn’t succeeded in proving this yet.
Crush a few berries (including the mahonia seeds) together and lather the mix on boils. Wrap with a cloth or gauze to hold in place. Replace after a few hours with a new poultice.
- Caution, will stain clothes, sheets and furniture!
Smart tip about Mahonia health benefits
Remember that these berries aren’t to be given to children, infants, and breast-feeding or pregnant mothers.
“Anthocyanins and phenolic compounds of Mahonia aquifolium berries and their contributions to antioxidant activity” by Hacer Coklar, Mehmet Akbulut, Department of Food Engineering, Selcuk University, Selcuklu 42031, Konya, Turkey, in Journal of Functional Foods 35 (2017) 166-174.
Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Mahonia looking healthy! by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work