Berberine is a natural alkaloid. It is found in a wide variety of traditional medicinal herbs such as tree turmeric, goldenseal, goldthread, and barberry.
It comes from India and China where it was first used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medical treatments.
An alkaloid is a class of organic compounds of plant origin. The berberine alkaloid contains mostly nitrogen atoms. These have pronounced physiological effects on humans especially as regards metabolic and cardiovascular health.
Two herbs, Coptidis Rhizoma and Phellodendri Chinensis Cortex, in which berberine is the main active ingredient, have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years to treat diabetes, bacterial gastroenteritis, diarrhoea and other digestive diseases.
Many claims have been made about the effectiveness of berberine as a remedy for a variety of ills. But how many of these are evidence-based and how many are wishful thinking?
There is good evidence that berberine possesses antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour properties, and can lower blood-glucose and blood pressure.
Other claims are less well supported by evidence… claims that it inhibits the growth of cancers, is beneficial in the treatment of osteoporosis, ameliorates problems with digestion, burns and bacterial infections, etc.
Further research is much needed.
Proven health benefits of berberine
Berberine delivers health benefits for several medical conditions that are backed up by good clinical research. The first few will be of interest to persons with diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Berberine helps diabetics
A study published in the US National Library of Medicine in the National Institutes of Health in August 1981 found that berberine helps to lower blood glucose levels.
Another study from the same source published in February 2019 found that berberine has positive effects on glucose-lipid metabolism, inflammatory factors and insulin resistance in patients with metabolic syndrome.
The clincher was another study published by the journal Metabolism in May 2008 that compared taking berberine with taking metformin over three months. The researchers found that berberine was able to control blood glucose and lipid metabolism in type 2 diabetics just as effectively as metformin.
A further study published in March 2012 in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that berberine can improve insulin sensitivity by inhibiting the storage of fat in patients with metabolic syndrome. This implies that berberine may be able to help in the prevention of kidney damage.
Effects of berberine on cholesterol and blood pressure
There is good evidence that berberine can help lower high levels of LDL, total cholesterol and blood pressure.
The same study mentioned above about berberine and glucose control, published in the journal Metabolism in May 2008, found that berberine reduced serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels in type 2 diabetics.
Another study that combined the administration of red yeast rice (which is known to reduce levels of cholesterol) with berberine, published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2015, discovered that berberine provides a broader range of cholesterol protection with a reduced risk of serious side-effects compared to statin (the prescription drug usually used to control cholesterol).
An animal study titled Effect of Berberine on promoting the excretion of cholesterol in high-fat diet-induced hyperlipidemic hamsters published in the Journal of Translational Medicine in August 2015 found that berberine could reduce abnormally high concentrations of fats and lipids in the blood by promoting the excretion of cholesterol from the liver and inhibiting the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines.
Studies have also found that berberine can improve blood pressure levels and circulation among people with metabolic syndrome when it is consumed with a healthy diet high in antioxidants or supplements such as folic acid, coenzyme Q10 and astaxanthin.
Berberine supports heart health
Berberine has a positive effect on heart health. This is probably due to its ability to help keep blood glucose levels and obesity under control… thus mitigating the risk of coronary heart disease.
It also protects against arteriosclerosis because it stimulates the release of nitric oxide, a signalling molecule that relaxes the arteries, thus lowering blood pressure and increasing blood flow.
A study published in the World Journal of Cardiology in April 2010 reported that people who took berberine had better heart function and were better able to do exercise than those who were given a placebo.
Berberine helps weight loss
Berberine can have a moderate effect on weight loss.
AMPK (adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase) is an enzyme inside human cells that plays a crucial role in regulating metabolism. Thus, it is often called a ‘metabolic master switch’.
Berberine is one of the few compounds able to activate AMPK. Activation boosts fat burning in the mitochondria… this is the reason several studies have demonstrated that berberine can prevent the accumulation of fat and protect against metabolic syndrome.
In one such study, published in Phytomedicine in July 2012, obese adults were given 500mg of berberine orally three times a day for 12 weeks. This study showed that berberine is a potent lipid-lowering compound and that it has a moderate effect on weight loss.
Berberine can help manage SIBO
People who suffer from SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) have excessive bacteria in their small intestines. The condition is usually treated with oral antibiotics but not always successfully.
A study published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine in May 2014 found that a herbal treatment which included berberine worked just as well as antibiotics in treating SIBO and was equally safe.
Potential benefits of berberine
The potential benefits of berberine refer to benefits for which there is some clinical evidence but that evidence is either not strong enough or otherwise not sufficient to prove a particular benefit.
Here are some of these benefits:
Cognitive decline… studies on human subjects suggest that berberine has potential therapeutic value against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and neurodegeneration due to trauma. Animal studies suggest that it may also help fight depression.
Anti-cancer effects… berberine may help induce apoptosis, the programmed death of cancer cells. Research at China Medical University demonstrated that berberine can induce apoptosis in human tongue cancer cells. Research on how berberine hydrochloride can regulate the metabolism of cancer cells, inhibiting their growth and proliferation, is ongoing.
Protecting the liver… early research suggests that berberine supports the liver by decreasing blood sugar, insulin resistance and triglycerides, which are markers of liver damage in people with diabetes and viruses such as hepatitis. It also offers support for people with fatty liver disease. Research is ongoing.
Lung health… research suggests that the anti-inflammatory effects of berberine benefit lung function. In one experiment, mice were given berberine and then exposed to enough cigarette smoke to cause acute lung injury; it was found that the mice given the alkaloid had less inflammation and less lung injury compared to mice that were exposed to the same amount of smoke but without being given berberine.
How to use berberine
You should be able to find berberine as a dietary supplement in the form of berberine HCL in your local health food store… if not, you can order it online.
A natural health care practitioner can help you determine the most appropriate dose for you. The usual dosage, however, is 1,500 milligram a day taken in three equal doses of 500mg each.
Dividing the daily dosage into three parts is necessary to keep the level of berberine in your blood stable as this alkaloid has a short half-life. Another reason for dividing the daily dosage is that a large single dose can upset your stomach, with cramps and diarrhoea.
Take the supplement with your meal or just after to take advantage of berberine’s ability to flatten the spike in blood glucose and lipid levels that occurs immediately after a meal.
Note… when buying berberine HCL make sure you don’t confuse it with Berberol (a brand name for another product), or berberrubine (a metabolite or a substance formed in or necessary for your metabolism).
Side effects and risks of taking berberine
Berberine has an outstanding safety record. The side-effects are minor and are related to digestion… some stomach pain, cramping, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea.
However, diabetics and hypertensives need to be careful if they are controlling their condition with medication such as metformin or statins… as berberine can naturally lower blood glucose and blood pressure, and you could end up with hypos.
If you are thinking of taking the berberine supplement long-term, ie for more than three months, you should consult your doctor.
Nursing and pregnant women should also seek the advice of their family doctor before taking a berberine supplement at all.