Over the past decade or so, Oregon Grape has become the go-to for a lot of herbalists for its anti-biotic prowess. Scientific study has shown that Oregon Grape has a lot of berberine, much like Barberry and Goldenseal, making it a good substitute for either in many minds. The problem is, Oregon Grape Root doesn’t always work. Sometimes, it’s power to stop bacterial infections and viruses seems almost miraculous, but sometimes it’s effect seems negligible. “What gives?” you may ask.
While the science is dead-on, it doesn’t take into account the rest of Oregon Grape root’s constituents or how they act as a team to shift the body’s chemistry. That’s where a basic understanding of energetics can be immensely helpful, especially to the home herbalist. Matching the energetic profile to the condition and individual you’re working with can help you narrow the scope of choices available, helping you to choose your herbal remedies more wisely.
Oregon Grape root’s generally classified as pungent and bitter with an overall cooling effect. In Ayurvedic practice, it’s a pitta balancer that decreases excess kapha and increases vata. That sounds counter-intuitive when you consider that Oregon Grape root is most often used for conditions where there’s excessive dry conditions, like dry skin or a dry respiratory system. In Traditional Western Herbal practice, Oregon Grape Root is used for atrophy and stagnation, helping best when the symptom profile includes emaciation, dehydration, constipation, and generally dry or low-fluid conditions. Why, then, would Ayurveda suggest it as a kapha reducer and vata increaser?
Oregon Grape root helps to break up stagnant areas where fluids have gotten stuck and thus caused an overall dry state. The fluids have gotten stuck at a deeper level, often in the intestinal tract or liver, causing a relative drought. The outward signs you’ll see all include an element of dry and stuck moisture, like dry or patchy-dry skin including psoriasis or excema; dry respiratory system including the dry cough of bronchitis and dry sore throat potentially with yellow-green mucus or stuck phlegm that won’t come up; or dry digestive system including Crohn’s disease, constipation, and malnutrition from malabsorption. The action needed is to break up that which has interrupted the normal flow of fluids, thus reducing of kapha, and to get those fluids moving once again, thus the increasing aspect of vata.
Oregon Grape root works well when fever or heat signs are present as well as when they’re not. As a pitta-balancer, it helps to bring heat back into the proper range and area of function. Bronchitis or a cold that’s accompanied by a dry cough that’s not productive and especially where you notice what feels like deeply stuck phglem or mucus in the lungs with or without a fever is a prime example of where Oregon Grape root shines. When a fever is present, Oregon Grape root pairs well with a fever reducer like Yarrow to bring the body’s fire back into balance. Marshmallow or burdock root added to that formula can help tone the mucus membranes of the lungs as Oregon Grape root gets to work on removing the deeper stuck mucus.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Oregon Grape could be considered an agent for clearing damp heat, particularly that relating to the digestive system. Signs include yellow to green mucus that’s sticky or thick, jaundice or a yellowish complexion, a slippery pulse, red tongue with a yellowish and greasy-wet coating, nausea to loss of appetite, dry mouth and lack of thirst, among others. The picture is of someone where the fluids aren’t flowing properly, thus causing heat to build up and dry out the mucus, thus exacerbating the problem. It can be used similarly to Coptis in Traditional Chinese Herbal formulas with the same contraindication: avoid using Oregon Grape Root in the case of yin deficiency. When Yin is deficient, Oregon Grape root is likely to make the condition worse in part because it tends to break up the heavier, yin qualities that are akin to kapha in Ayurvedic terms and it tends to get energies moving, which stokes yang qualities that are akin to vata in Ayurvedic terms.
Looking for the signs that are specific to Oregon Grape root when you’re creating an herbal remedy for your family during flu and cold season, for instance, can make your medicine a lot more effective. If, for instance, you know your family tends to develop bronchitis fairly easily, you could just add Oregon Grape root to your formulas for respiratory illness, like my Oregon Grape-Burdock Electuaries Recipe, knowing that the likihood that you’ll need it is high. But, if your family never gets bronchitis and rarely even gets colds or flus that progress all the way to the yellow-green mucus stages, it would be wise to keep dried Oregon Grape root handy but to rely on other anti-bacterial, anti-viral, or anti-microbial herbs like tea tree, thyme, and lavender to provide the bulk of the support you’ll need.
Be aware that the berberine in Oregon Grape Root as well as Goldenseal, Barberry, and other herbs, can shift your intestinal flora. It’s unwise to use it for a long duration. If you’re taking prescription antibiotics, you should check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking these herbs. If you have signs of yin-deficiency, Oregon Grape root is also contraindicated.
Resources for Oregon Grape’s Energetics
- The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine
- The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification
- The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants
- “Herbalist Review, Issue 2000 #3: TCM paradigm and western herbs: Oregon Grape root as example” by Roger W. Wicke,Ph. D.