Juniperus: Are juniper berries a kidney irritant?

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 07-31-94 6(2): 12

The articles in this section address the use of juniper berries (Juniperus communis) The first article, by Dr. Kerry Bone of Australia, challenges the conventional wisdom that juniper berries are automatically contraindicated in kidney disease. Dr. Bone points out the distinction between the berries and the extracted oil, and notes that oil may be adulterated by extracts from plant parts other than the berries. The next article, written by Dr. Wm. Cook in 1869, also points out the difference between the berries and the oil, and suggests that even the berries are contraindicated in acute inflammation of the kidney. The third article points out the uses recommended by other physician-authors. My conclusion: use the berries with caution in active inflammation of the kidney; like other alteratives with stimulant properties, they are more appropriate in conditions of deficiency and laxity of the tissues than in conditions of excess or inflammation. Dr. Wade Boyle recommends monitoring for albumin in the urine if it is used for more than six weeks continuously.

Juniper Berry is not a kidney irritant

Bone, Kerry

Medical Herbalism 07-31-94 6(2): 12

The 24th International Symposium on Essential Oils was held in Berlin during July 1993. In this and upcoming issues, we will serialize a set of articles by Dr. Bone reviewing the conference.

The Essential oil from the berries of juniper (Juniperus communis) is generally regarded as a kidney irritant. The conventional wisdom is that juniper is contraindicated in renal disease and should not be used long-term as a diuretic. However, a poster presented at the 24th International Symposium on Essential Oils by BM Heil and J Schilcher from Berlin has challenged this assumption. Potter in 1898 wrote that juniper"...may set up renal irritation, in large doses producing strangury, priapism, hematuria, suppression of the urine and uraemic convulsions." This opinion was perpetuated by other writers such as Madaus.

The authors reviewed all the available literature on juniper from 1844 to the present. They concluded that the main source of the warnings concerning juniper came from the use of fatal doses of juniper oil administered to animals. Also high doses of juniper oil cause clouding of the urine which might be taken as a sign of renal irritation. But this clouding disappears on dilution with ethanol, indicating that it is not due to irritation (and may in fact be caused by the excretion of juniper oil metabolites.)

A recent toxicological study on rats using high doses of juniper oil found no damage to the kidneys. This oil contained low levels of terpene hydrocarbons such as [alpha] and [beta] pinene. The authors hypothesized that the reputation for juniper oil as a renal irritant may have come from the use of oils containing high levels of [alpha] and [beta] pinene which are known irritants to the urinary tract. Higher levels of these pinenes would result from codistillation of needles, branches, and unripe berries with the ripe berries.

It was concluded that ripe juniper berries (as normally used in herbal medicine), and juniper oil distilled only from the ripe berries can be used safely in diuretic therapy. However, care should still be exercised in cases of acute renal inflammation.


Adulteration of essential oils (volatile oils) is a common problem. In this example, adulteration has led to a false conclusion about the safety not only of the oil, but the herb from which it was distilled. Care should still be exercised if juniper oil is used, since it may contain high levels of pinenes. Many herbal writers have commended the value of juniper for osteoarthritis, but the concern about the kidneys precluded its long-term use. Natural therapists can now safely use preparations of the ripe juniper berry for this chronic disorder without fear of compromising renal function.

Reprinted from the Medi Herb Monitor, March 1993
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner  

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