Berberine is a relatively new addition to the supplement world, but you may have heard of it being referred to on TikTok and other social media as “nature’s Ozempic.” This reference is a nod to the diabetes drug that has taken the world by storm, primarily because of its notorious weight-loss side effects.
As a supplement, the buzz around berberine primarily relates to its utility as a natural aid for people with type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. MedlinePlus notes it might even strengthen the heartbeat, potentially helping people with certain heart conditions. (Note: Pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants, and children should not take berberine.)
Although berberine has only recently been in the spotlight, it has a long history of medicinal use. “Berberine is a chemical found naturally in certain plants,” explains Mascha Davis, RDN, a Los Angeles–based registered dietitian-nutritionist and the author of Eat Your Vitamins. “It has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine.” According to Memorial Sloan Kettering, berberine has been taken in the past to treat infections, as well as to assist digestive conditions and inflammatory disorders.
So, does berberine deserve its reputation as “nature’s Ozempic?” Can it help regulate blood sugar or aid weight loss, and most importantly, is it safe? Discover more about berberine and whether you might want to talk to your doctor about the supplement, or take a pass.
What Is Berberine?
Like many supplements, berberine is derived from plants. “Berberine is a type of chemical compound called an alkaloid that is found in the roots, leaves, stems, and barks of plants, such as barberry, Oregon grape, and tree turmeric,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, the Chicago-based author of The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods.
Registered dietitians typically suggest “eating your vitamins” in the form of food (especially fruits and vegetables), but that’s tricky to do with berberine, and not just because of the yellow compound’s bitter taste. “Berberine can be consumed through these plants, but they are uncommon in the United States,” says Davis. “Berberine is much more accessible through a supplemental form.”
Functions of Berberine
There are a number of reasons why people might start taking berberine (but it’s important to talk with your physician before you take any supplement). For example, Nebraska Medicine mentions claims that berberine may help with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, as well as people with type 2 diabetes.
Here is the full list of potential uses of berberine supplements according to MedlinePlus:
- May help people with type 2 diabetes lower their blood sugar levels
- Might help lower high “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels
- Could help reduce blood pressure levels
- May help ease canker sores in the mouth (when applied in a gel form)
- Might help people with polycystic ovarian syndrome (or PCOS)
Forms of Berberine
Berberine is primarily found as a supplement, but it does come in other forms.
- Capsules Most of the potential benefits of berberine have been seen when the supplement is taken by mouth (such as to lower high blood pressure), and it is typically sold in capsule form.
- Topical mouth gel For canker sores in particular, the chemical is added to a gel that people apply to the painful area, MedlinePlus notes.
Potential Health Benefits of Berberine
More studies are needed to explore berberine’s potential benefits, but there is a wide range of research on the supplement, because it's been used for such a long time. “There are numerous health benefits to berberine, with hundreds of studies that contain evidence of berberine’s efficacy,” says Davis.
Still, as Nebraska Health notes, there has never been a large-scale, randomized controlled study on berberine (in which a large group of study participants get a placebo and the others take berberine). “As with most nontraditional, complementary remedies, more research is needed in this area,” Retelny says.
Here, discover some of the potential health benefits of berberine based on research conducted thus far.
May Lower Blood Glucose Levels for People With Type 2 Diabetes
One of the most talked-about potential perks of berberine is its purported ability to help people with type 2 diabetes. “Berberine has been shown to assist with glucose and lipid metabolism,” says Davis. That means it may lower blood sugar levels for some people.
For example, past research shows that berberine decreased hemoglobin A1C (a measure of your average blood sugar levels over the past three months, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]) and fasting blood glucose.
Also, a review of research published in April 2021 in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology noted that berberine may improve insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes, thus potentially improving their type 2 diabetes condition. A study published in October 2020 in Nature Communications found that a probiotic and a berberine supplement taken together significantly impacted the study participants’ hemoglobin A1C levels (compared with groups who took a placebo or just a probiotic).
Other research, published in February 2018 in the journal Oncotarget, found that berberine was a potential treatment for type 2 diabetes and noted that it showed similar benefits to the type 2 diabetes prescription drug metformin.
May Lower Blood Pressure and Aid Other Cardiovascular Issues
For people with high blood pressure or other cardiovascular issues, it might be worth talking to your doctor about berberine. “Berberine has also been found to have therapeutic effects for hypertension, arrhythmia, and heart failure,” says Davis.
A review published in September 2021 in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that berberine was beneficial for heart disease. “It does this by helping to combat inflammation and oxidative stress as well as by assisting with regulation of electrical signals and ionic channels in the body,” Davis says. The study authors noted that it may be beneficial for people who don’t tolerate statins (a type of drug that reduces cholesterol in the body, Mayo Clinic notes).
May Help Ease Canker Sores in the Mouth
Canker sores, or aphthous stomatitis, can be a real pain in the mouth, but berberine may ease the discomfort. One past study found that when a gel containing berberine was applied to the sore four times per day for five days, patients reported that it reduced the size and pain of the sore.
May Help With PCOS Symptoms
Berberine might be helpful for people suffering with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), one review of research published in February 2020 in the journal Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics found. PCOS happens when the ovaries produce much more of a certain type of hormone called androgens, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. People with PCOS often can’t utilize insulin well, which can cause a greater number of androgens to build up, per Johns Hopkins.
One study, published in January 2022 in the journal Cureus found that 500 milligrams (mg) of berberine taken twice a day improved study participants’ hormone status and cardiovascular profile, as well as other factors involved in PCOS (like weight, BMI, fasting glucose and insulin ratio, total cholesterol) more than metformin.
May Have Antimicrobial Properties
There is preliminary research in animals showing that topical berberine may have antimicrobial properties. One study, published in March 2022 in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy found that when a berberine cream was applied to mice infected with parasites, it was safe to use and stopped the parasite progression.
Still, more research needs to be done, and it might be hard to find a topical berberine cream. Past research found that while a topical berberine may be beneficial for skin infections and inflammation, an effective formula is still a work in progress.
Weight Loss Effect of Berberine
Curious about berberine’s impact on weight loss? “Berberine is being researched for its effects on body weight and fat mass,” says Retelny. One past study found that when people with obesity were given 500 mg of berberine three times a day for 12 weeks, they lost a “mild” amount of weight (5 pounds), and experienced decreased triglyceride levels.
And a review of research, published in May 2020 in the journal Clinical Nutrition ESPEN found that berberine supplements had a positive impact on body weight, body mass index (or BMI, which is calculated using your weight and height, according to the National Institutes of Health), and waist circumference.
Much more research needs to be conducted in this area, however, including more studies on humans, and more research to figure out an effective berberine dose, per a study published in November 2018 in the journal Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity.
Potential Risks and Side Effects of Berberine
Because it’s derived from a plant, berberine may seem harmless, but it does come with potential risks and side effects. Here, discover what concerns come along with the supplement — and who should absolutely not take it.
Make sure the berberine bottle is kept in a place out of reach of children, and do not use it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. “Berberine should only be used by adults and may not be safe for infants, children, and pregnant women as it may pose a risk for brain damage to the fetus or young children,” says Retelny.
Also, those with advanced type 2 diabetes and who are on medication for the condition should consult with their doctor before starting berberine, explains Davis. “The supplement may affect insulin dosage and blood sugar levels,” says Davis.
Another reason to consult with your doctor? “Berberine may interact with other medications and is not safe to take with blood sugar and blood lipid medications, as well as liver, blood clotting, and blood pressure medications,” said Retelny.
And for how long is it safe to be on this supplement? “There is not yet enough evidence to suggest that taking berberine daily long term is safe,” says Davis. MedlinePlus, for example, states that it’s been safely used when taken for up to six months (in doses up to 1.5 g daily). That’s why it’s so important to get your doctor’s input. “Make sure to consult with your doctor before starting berberine and work out the proper dosage,” Davis says.
While berberine seems to come with a whole host of benefits, there are still side effects. Here, discover potential issues that can come up when taking this supplement, from Retelny and Davis:
- Upset stomach
- Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar levels (This can happen especially if other blood sugar lowering medications are being taken in addition to berberine, explains Davis.)
Who May Want to Consider Berberine?
Adults with type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, or PCOS who are interested in berberine should talk to their doctor about the supplement. “Berberine could also be good for someone who is intolerant of statins or wants to take a more natural approach to their health before starting a medication,” says Davis. Also, adults who deal with painful canker sores might want to chat with their doctor about using berberine in a gel form.
As for who should avoid the supplement? Infants, children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take berberine. Adults with type 2 diabetes who are taking diabetes medication need to speak to their doctor before trying berberine. Also, it may not be safe for people who are on blood sugar, blood lipid, blood clotting, and blood pressure medications (thus, consult with your doctor first if you’re on these medications).
How to Choose and Store Berberine Supplements
If your doctor has given you the green light to try berberine, here’s what you should know about selecting and storing the supplement.
Choosing a supplement is often challenging, considering supplements aren’t tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they’re sold to consumers, the FDA notes. “When looking for supplements, it is always best to get ones that have been third-party tested and verified for purity and quality,” says Davis. These seals from third party testers are often printed on the label, and possible third party testers include NSF, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) and ConsumerLab.com.
If you’ve purchased a bottle of berberine supplements, follow the storage instructions on the label, and note: “Berberine should be stored at room temperature, and any extreme temperatures should be avoided,” says Davis.
Dosage of Berberine
The amount of berberine in supplements can vary. MedlinePlus notes that it has typically been used by adults taking a 0.4 to 1.5 g dose daily; they also say that it’s been safely used when taken for up to six months. Check with your doctor about what dosage might be right for you — and for how long you should take it.
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