A compound called berberine is one of the most effective natural supplements available. It has very impressive health benefits, and affects your body at the molecular level. Berberine has been shown to lower blood sugar, cause weight loss and improve heart health, to name a few. It is one of the few supplements shown to be as effective as a pharmaceutical drug. This is a detailed review of berberine and its health effects. What Is Berberine? Berberine is a bioactive compound that can be extracted from several different plants, including a group of shrubs called Berberis (1). Technically, it belongs to a class of compounds called alkaloids. It has a yellow color, and has often been used as a dye. Berberine has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, where it was used to treat various ailments. Now, modern science has confirmed that it has impressive benefits for several different health problems (2Trusted Source). BOTTOM LINE:Berberine is a compound that can be extracted from several different plants. It has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. How Does It Work? Berberine has now been tested in hundreds of different studies. It has been shown to have powerful effects on many different biological systems (3Trusted Source). After you ingest berberine, it gets taken in by the body and transported into the bloodstream. Then it travels into the body’s cells. Inside the cells, it binds to several different “molecular targets” and changes their function (4Trusted Source). This is similar to how pharmaceutical drugs work. I am not going to get into much detail here, because the biological mechanisms are complicated and diverse. However, one of the main actions of berberine is to activate an enzyme inside cells called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) (5). This enzyme is sometimes referred to as a “metabolic master switch” (6Trusted Source). It is found in the cells of various organs, including the brain, muscle, kidney, heart and liver. This enzyme plays a major role in regulating metabolism (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source). Berberine also affects various other molecules inside cells, and may even affect which genes are turned on or off (4Trusted Source). BOTTOM LINE:Berberine affects the body at the molecular level, and has a variety of functions inside cells. One of the main functions is activating an important enzyme called AMPK, which regulates metabolism. It Causes a Major Reduction in Blood Sugar Levels Type 2 diabetes is a serious disease that has become incredibly common in recent decades, causing millions of deaths every year. It is characterized by elevated blood sugar (glucose) levels, either caused by insulin resistance or lack of insulin. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage the body’s tissues and organs, leading to various health problems and a shortened lifespan. Many studies show that berberine can significantly reduce blood sugar levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes (9Trusted Source). In fact, its effectiveness is comparable to the popular diabetes drug metformin (Glucophage) (2Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source). It seems to work via multiple different mechanisms (11Trusted Source):
Decreases insulin resistance, making the blood sugar lowering hormone insulin more effective.
Increases glycolysis, helping the body break down sugars inside cells.
Decrease sugar production in the liver.
Slows the breakdown of carbohydrates in the gut.
Increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
BOTTOM LINE:Berberine is very effective at lowering blood sugar and HbA1c, which are elevated in people with diabetes. It works as well as some pharmaceutical drugs. Berberine May Help You Lose Weight Berberine may also be effective as a weight loss supplement. So far, two studiesTrusted Source have examined the effects on body weight. In a 12-week study in obese individuals, 500 mg taken three times per day caused about 5 pounds of weight loss, on average. The participants also lost 3.6% of their body fat (14). Another more impressive study was conducted in 37 men and women with metabolic syndrome. This study went on for 3 months, and the participants took 300 mg, 3 times per day. The participants dropped their body mass index (BMI) levels from 31.5 to 27.4, or from obese to overweight in only 3 months. They also lost belly fat and improved many health markers (15Trusted Source). The researchers believe that the weight loss is caused by improved function of fat-regulating hormones, such as insulin, adiponectin and leptin. Berberine also appears to inhibit the growth of fat cells at the molecular level (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source). However, more research is needed on the weight loss effects of berberine. BOTTOM LINE:Two studies have shown that berberine can cause significant weight loss, while improving all sorts of other health markers at the same time. It Lowers Cholesterol and May Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease Heart disease is currently the world’s most common cause of premature death. Many factors that can be measured in the blood are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. As it turns out, berberine has been shown to improve many of these factors. According to a review of 11 studies, it can (18Trusted Source):
Lower total cholesterol by 0.61 mmol/L (24 mg/dL).
Lower LDL cholesterolTrusted Source by 0.65 mmol/L (25 mg/dL).
Lower blood triglycerides by 0.50 mmol/L (44 mg/dL).
Raise HDL cholesterol by 0.05 mmol/L (2 mg/dL).
It has also been shown to lower apolipoprotein B by 13-15%, which is a very important risk factor (19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source). According to some studies, berberine works by inhibiting an enzyme called PCSK9. This leads to more LDL being removed from the bloodstream (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source). Keep in mind that diabetes, high blood sugar levels and obesity are also major risk factors for heart disease, all of which seem to be improved with this supplement. Given the beneficial effects on all these risk factors, it seems likely that berberine could drastically reduce the risk of heart disease. BOTTOM LINE:Studies show that berberine reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while raising HDL (the “good”) cholesterol. It may lower the risk of heart disease in the long-term. Other Health Benefits Berberine may also have numerous other health benefits:
Cancer: Test tube and animal studies have shown that it can reduce the growth and spread of various different types of cancer (26, 27Trusted Source).
Fatty liver: It can reduce fat build-up in the liver, which should help protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (35, 36Trusted Source).
Heart failure: One study showed that it drastically improved symptoms and reduced risk of death in heart failure patients (37Trusted Source).
Many of these benefits need more research before firm recommendations can be made, but the current evidence is very promising. BOTTOM LINE:Preliminary studies show that berberine may have benefits against depression, cancer, infections, fatty liver and heart failure. It also has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Dosage and Side Effects Many of the studies cited in the article used dosages in the range of 900 to 1500 mg per day. It is common to take 500 mg, 3 times per day, before meals (a total of 1500 mg per day). Berberine has a half-life of several hours, so it is necessary to spread your dosage to several times per day to achieve stable blood levels. If you have a medical condition or are on any medications, then it is recommended that you speak to your doctor before taking it. This is especially important if you are currently taking blood sugar lowering medications. Overall, berberine has an outstanding safety profile. The main side effects are related to digestion, and there are some reports of cramping, diarrhea, flatulence, constipation and stomach pain (10Trusted Source). BOTTOM LINE:A common dosage recommendation is 500 mg, 3 times per day, half an hour before meals. Berberine may cause digestive side effects in some people.
Written by Kris Gunnars, BScon January 14, 2017