The Health Benefits of Juniper Berries

Anti-Bacterial and Anti-Fungal Herb That Promotes Digestion

Juniper Berries
Credit: Thomas Connertz / EyeEm

Juniper berries (Juniperus communis L.) belongs to a genus that involves 60 to 70 different species. The most commonly used form of Juniper berries is the Juniperus communis L. variation. The common name is juniper, also known as juniperi fructus, common juniper, and "boughs of the supernatural." 

Juniper berries are classified in the culinary herb/spice category because they are commonly used as a flavoring for drinks and in cooking and preserving foods. it is also considered an herbal bitter and is thought to help promote digestion.

Juniper is a strong aromatic (scented) herb from an evergreen plant or tree. It grows in temperate regions of Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. The cone of the juniper is the part that is referred to as the berry. It looks like a small green berry and ends up turning a bluish-black shade in the second year of growth. In the late spring, small flowers bloom on the juniper plant. 

The juniper berry is more like a small pine cone than a fruit. In fact, the juniper berry is not a fruit at all, but rather a type of bitter/citrus tasting spice. 

It is important to note that while juniper berries contain substances that have displayed potentially beneficial properties, and while there are some promising animal studies, there are no clinical trials in humans that have demonstrated a clinical benefit from juniper berries.

Juniper berry health benefits
Verywell / JR Bee 

Health Benefits

Common Uses

The most common culinary use of the juniper berry is as a spice used to flavor gin. It’s used for its medicinal purposes as an essential oil, made by steam distillation of the crushed, dried, or fermented berries. Other ways the juniper berry is used is as dried fruit.  The oil is said to have diuretic (a substance that promotes the increased production of urine, which may help reduce edema and lower blood pressure) and antiseptic properties. 

Juniper berry oil is also known as a gastrointestinal (stomach and intestines) irritant, which is thought to help promote the movement of food through the digestive tract. The dried fruit and oil are used to relieve stomach upset. Note, unlike many essential oils, juniper berry essential oil is FDA approved for limited internal use.

History

The mature female cones of the juniper berries have been used for thousands of years. Extracts from the juniper were historically used to treat many ailments, including snake bites and worms (in the intestines). North American natives used juniper berries to treat conditions such as tuberculosis, bladder infections, and more. Juniper berries have also been used as a flavoring for foods that were pickled, and as a popular flavoring for food and alcoholic beverages.

Juniper berries have been used to flavor gin, a liquor developed in the 17th century in the Netherlands. Other juniper-flavored alcoholic beverages include the Finnish rye-and-juniper beer made from the juniper berries and branches.

Ancient Times

Going back even further in time, the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians were known to have used juniper berries. In fact, the Greeks used juniper berries as an herb for purification ceremonies and to increase physical stamina (particularly for athletes), recording the use of juniper berries as medicine long before they were said to start using the berries as a spice in foods.

The Romans also used juniper berries as a cheaply produced substitute for black pepper, which was expensive to import from India. Juniper berries have even been found in Egyptian tombs; the Egyptians used juniper as a medicinal herb and to embalm the deceased. 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) juniper berries have been used for centuries as a stimulant for the kidneys and bladder to flush out impurities and toxins. It has also been used as a general antibiotic herb to heal infections, as well as a digestive tonic for the stomach, intestines, and spleen.

Additional Benefits

While firm scientific evidence is lacking, claims have been made over the years that juniper berries might effects to treat several symptoms and conditions including:

  • diuretic effect (increases urine output, reduces edema, and helps to lower blood pressure)
  • skin health
  • anti-inflammatory (reduction of swelling) properties
  • antiseptic and antimicrobial properties (including anti-bacterial and anti-fungal effects such as killing Candida fungus)
  • antioxidant properties (reduces damage caused by free radicals)
  • cytotoxic (anti-cancer) properties
  • gastrointestinal irritant (promotes digestion)
  • neuroprotective properties (protects the brain and nervous system)

Medical Uses of Juniper Berries

There are many medical conditions that some have claimed juniper berries can treat including:

  • Dyspepsia (a condition of the upper abdomen with pain, discomfort, and bloating after meals and nausea, heartburn, and regurgitation of food or acid)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Insomnia (when juniper berry oil is mixed with other oils)
  • Rash, eczema, and wound healing
  • Bronchitis
  • Bladder infections
  • Diabetes (limited clinical research)
  • High cholesterol
  • Some types of cancer (more research is needed)

Some people claim that the following medical conditions have been treated with juniper berry essential oil:

  • Respiratory infections
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Arthritis

Once again, it's important to note that there is no medical evidence to support these claims.

Other Uses

Juniper is commonly used as a flavoring in:

  • Pickled foods
  • Non-alcoholic beverages
  • Frozen dairy desserts
  • Candy
  • Baked goods
  • Gelatins and puddings
  • Meat product

Juniper berries are also used as a seasoning for bitters, in perfumes and cosmetics, for its gin-like flavor, in household products (for its ability to kill many strains of microorganisms, including bacteria and fungus), and for veterinarian use (to heal wounds and protect from parasitic infections).

Studies

There are many clinical studies that have been conducted showing the various health benefits of juniper berries.

A 2007 study found that juniper berries helped improve dyspepsia in animals. Another study conducted in 2016 and published in a peer-reviewed journal in the field of Pharmacognosy and Natural Products discovered that juniper berry extracts were effective in blocking the growth of the bacterial triggers of rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, as well as useful in the treatment of some cancers. 

A 2010 study discovered that juniper berries have very strong antioxidant effects of compounds known as bioflavonoids and flavonoids, which are commonly found in fruits and vegetables.

In, fact, the study revealed over 87 natural antioxidant compounds in juniper berries. Several more studies have shown positive results for the antimicrobial activity of juniper berries. Juniper berry oil was found to fight against Staphylococcus aureus, Enterobacteria, several stains of pneumonia, and more. 

Other studies have found potential health benefits of juniper berries relating to improving the effects of Parkinson's disease and lowering cholesterol. Juniper oil (combined with other essential oils) was also found to reduce the addictive effects of sleeping medications or eliminate it altogether in people with insomnia.

Possible Side Effects

There are very few documented side effects on record from juniper berries (other than allergic symptoms) which include:

  • a skin rash
  • trouble breathing
  • kidney damage (from excessive use)
  • increase in blood sugar levels (diabetics should use with caution and the healthcare provider should be notified before using)

If allergic symptoms occur after the use of juniper berries, it’s important to seek medical care before continuing use.

Toxicity

Large doses of juniper berries could be toxic and may lead to:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Convulsions

The juniper volatile oil could be toxic to the kidneys; however, toxicity has primarily been discovered at very high doses in animal studies.

Contraindications

Juniper berries may be contraindicated (not recommended) in some situations, including:

  • kidney impairment
  • liver conditions
  • diabetes (juniper berries may reduce blood glucose levels—diabetics should take with caution and always consult with the healthcare provider before taking)
  • breastfeeding
  • taking certain medications
  • pregnancy

The juniper berry can interfere with proper implantation of the embryo in early pregnancy and may have other properties (such as inducing uterine contractions) that could contribute to or cause a loss of the pregnancy. 

Pregnant women and those who are trying to get pregnant should not use juniper in any form (including the whole berries, as a spice, or as an essential oil). 

A 2014 study found that juniper berries may cause toxicity or interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize a wide variety of different drugs by decreasing a specific enzyme needed to break down many types of medications. Therefore, it’s important to talk to the healthcare provider before taking juniper berries or using juniper essential oil (for those taking any type of medication).

Juniper is not recommended for use in infants or children.

Dosage and Preparation

Recommended Dose

The generally recommended dose of juniper berries is:

  • 2 to 10 grams per day of the whole berry, crushed berry, or powdered fruit
  • 20 to 100 milligrams of essential oil for dyspepsia
  • 2 to 3 grams steeped in 2/3 cup of boiled water for 20 minutes and taken three times daily for the infusion

Preparation

To use juniper berries as a health-promoting spice in food or in cooking, the following are some tips for use.

  • Before using berries in sauces or meat marinades, be sure to crush them.
  • To crush juniper berries, place approximately one tablespoon in a zippered bag and smash with a spoon or kitchen tool (such as a metal mallet).
  • After the berries are crushed, place them on a cutting board and chop them up finely.
  • For a more subtle flavor, the berries can be toasted, but don’t overcook them. If they are burned, it will increase the bitter flavor.
  • To make a healthy non-alcoholic mocktail, mix 2 to 3 ounces of tonic water with 1 ounce of juniper berry syrup and a splash of lime. Shake over ice. 
  • Make a tasty diuretic tea by steeping juniper berries over boiling water for 10 minutes, add honey or another natural sweetener, and enjoy!

What to Look For

As with all herbs and spices, be sure to purchase juniper berries from a reputable source. You can find juniper in many health food stores—look in the spice section—available as a dried, whole, or crushed spice, or as a fresh berry. When buying juniper berry essential oil, look for organic, 100 percent essential oil (no additives) that is considered food-grade.

Other Questions

Can I eat juniper berries off the bush? 

Yes, but you must know which species you are eating from. There are approximately 60 to 70 different varieties of the juniper bush/tree. A small number of juniper plants are poisonous, and others have berries that are too bitter to eat. Only the common juniper (Juniperus communis L.) plant yields edible berries, traditionally used for its flavoring in gin and other foods.

Isn’t juniper toxic to the kidneys?

No. In one study (using very high doses) juniper berries were found to be toxic, but according to many medical experts, it is safe for the kidneys in proper doses.

Can juniper oil be used directly on the skin?

Yes, juniper oil can be used topically (directly rubbed on the skin) for treatment of skin conditions such as eczema and acne. Be sure to observe for side effects such as irritation, burning, redness, and swelling. It is a good idea to do a skin patch test by applying the oil to a small patch of skin, waiting 24 hours, and observing for an allergic reaction before using it all over the body.

A Word From Verywell

As with any herbal product, it’s important to follow the directions of the healthcare provider when it comes to administration and dosage. As with all drugs and supplements, the healthcare provider should be your resource who is qualified to make the decision on whether taking juniper is contradicted with any medical condition, including kidney problems, that you may have.  

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