Last modified on February 15th, 2023
Berberine is a supplement with effects similar to pharmaceutical medications, yet without many side effects. Berberine is a chemical found in some plants, including goldenseal, tree turmeric, and European barberry. The bioactive compound works at the molecular level, which is why it’s so powerful.
Potential benefits include lowering blood sugar, helping with metabolic conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and improving heart health. Berberine may help treat diabetes as well as diabetes medication and oral diabetes drugs, it has beneficial metabolic effects, and berberine suppresses proinflammatory responses, which can otherwise lead to chronic disease.
Below, we talk more about the uses of berberine, its potential side effects, and how to take it.
An Overview of Berberine
Berberine is a compound extracted from various plants, including Berberis, a set of shrubs.
Berberine is classified as an alkaloid and has a bright yellow color.
The plant compound has a long history of being used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and increasingly, modern research and science are uncovering its beneficial uses.
The compound is also used in Ayurvedic medicine.
Most of the research has looked at the benefits of the supplement for liver function, parameters of metabolic disorders, and marketers of glycemic control.
Hundreds of studies have looked at the uses and benefits of berberine, and most of these have shown the alkaloid’s powerful effects on different body systems.
When you take it, the berberine is transported to your bloodstream and your body’s cells. Once the alkaloid is inside your cells, it binds to molecular targets, changing their function. This is similar to how prescription drugs work.
One of the primary ways that berberine works on a molecular level are by activating an enzyme within cells called AMP-activated protein kinase or AMPK. AMPK is often referred to as our metabolic master switch, and it’s found in the cells of the bulk of our organs, including our heart, muscles, brain, kidney, and liver.
One role of AMPK is to regulate metabolism.
Berberine may also affect the genes that are activated or turned off.
More About AMPK
To understand the benefits of berberine, it’s worthwhile to look more at AMPK.
AMPK is like an energy sensor found within the cells of our body. As we age, activity declines, which can be why aging leads to changes in energy levels, body weight, and appetite.
When you don’t have cellular energy, it stimulates AMPK activity, causing more of it to be produced. Beneficial stressors are excellent AMPK activators, such as fasting and exercise.
Certain supplements like berberine can activate the pathway as well, and when we naturally activate our AMPK pathway, it can improve our metabolic health, support healthy aging and reduce inflammation.
AMPK helps determine the balance between your body’s energy consumption and production. Your body balances AMP production by sensing your current AMP to ATP ratio. ATP molecules are a source of fuel in your cells. Your energy starts as ATP that’s in your cells, and then it breaks down to AMP.
Whatever your current levels of AMP or ATP are, your energy production and usage can be changed.
Health benefits of AMPK include:
- The regulation of your energy balance and metabolism. Your hypothalamus is part of your brain that’s like your metabolism command center. Hypothalamic AMPK can restore your energy balance, and it’s stimulated when it senses your energy levels are low.
- AMPK can help support weight loss because it impacts your hunger and satiety levels.
- The signaling of AMPK can help prevent chronic inflammation and associated conditions like cardiovascular disease.
- AMPK in the hypothalamus can help increase glucose production if it senses your energy is low. AMPK can help prevent dysregulated insulin levels.
- Substances that improve AMPK levels can boost your exercise and physical performance.
- There’s evidence that AMPK can help regulate the processes that eliminate damaged cells from your body. This is known as autophagy, and it supports healthy aging in this way.
- Our hormonal and reproductive health depends significantly on energy status. If your body is under too much stress, for example, then the production of sex hormones goes down, including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. This can lead to irregular periods, sexual dysfunction, mood changes, and infertility. When AMPK is activated, it’s easier for your hormones to stay balanced.
There are, as mentioned, natural AMPK activators. These include exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, which boosts nitric oxide production, and nitric oxide is an AMPK activator.
Calorie restriction and fasting signal that you need energy, leading to AMPK activation, and foods high in antioxidants can also activate AMPK.
Supplements that activate AMPK include berberine, curcumin, zinc, fish oil, and ginseng.
What Are the Health Benefits of Berberine?
Below, we discuss berberine’s benefits for health in more detail, primarily focusing on berberine and its effect on blood sugar levels.
Berberine and Blood Sugar Control
High blood sugar levels can lead to conditions like prediabetes and diabetes because you have decreased insulin sensitivity or reduced insulin production.
When you have ongoing high blood sugar levels, it can lead to organ damage and other health complications.
Berberine has been shown in many clinical studies to help lower blood sugar levels.
There are a variety of pathways that berberine works on to do this.
Berberine can promote insulin production and increase insulin sensitivity. It can also regulate metabolism, reduce glucose production in the liver, and slow carbohydrate absorption in the gut.
Since berberine can increase nitric oxide production, it can help widen arteries which can also help lower blood sugar, and it increases glycolysis, which is the process by which glucose is broken down.
Berberine also helps regulate metabolism, furthering its beneficial effects on blood sugar.
Some studies show that adding 600 to 2700 mg of berberine a day could lower fasting and long-term blood sugar levels by 20% and 12%, respectively. This appears to be especially true when berberine is taken with blood sugar medicine.
A review of 14 studies suggests that berberine appeared to be as effective at lowering blood glucose levels as diabetes medications like metformin and glipizide.
There are some indications that berberine could be helpful for people who can’t take blood sugar-lowering drugs for insulin resistance otherwise because of kidney, liver, or heart disease.
Berberine for Metabolic Syndrome
According to current research, berberine may help with metabolic syndrome. It could reduce the risk of developing it and help with symptoms if someone already has it.
Metabolic syndrome is a set of conditions that, when combined, raise the risk of diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease. Metabolic syndrome is also known as insulin resistance syndrome.
The metabolic syndrome’s symptoms include abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, high blood triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol. HDL is also called good cholesterol.
Around 1 in 3 adults in the United States have metabolic syndrome.
Berberine has various effects that may help with metabolic syndrome, including reducing the risk of certain heart-related conditions. Berberine can decrease insulin resistance and lower levels of fasting blood glucose. There’s also evidence to show it can lower LDL levels and reduce inflammation, a common consequence of metabolic syndrome.
Heart disease is currently the most common cause of premature death globally, so reducing your risk factors can be lifesaving.
Berberine for Heart Health
There are varying ways that berberine can lower cardiovascular risk factors and potentially improve heart health.
One way is by lowering cholesterol. When you use berberine, it might lower total bad cholesterol and triglycerides. It appears to work differently than prescription cholesterol medications, so if you’re resistant to these treatments, berberine could still be helpful for you.
Berberine could also promote heart health because it can lower blood pressure, which is linked to heart disease and stroke. Taking a berberine supplement might lower both your diastolic and systolic blood pressure.
You might also find that the supplement helps you lose weight, and being overweight or obese is a significant risk factor for heart disease.
For example, in two studies, participants who took a berberine supplement consistently for three months had significant weight loss, likely because berberine helps with insulin control and regulating hormones that impact fat cells and appetite.
Berberine for PCOS
Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a condition that involves developing cysts on the ovaries, leading to fertility problems.
Berberine is thought to improve many symptoms of PCOS, including fertility and weight loss, and a lower risk of associated metabolic complications.
For example, at least two studies have assessed the benefits of berberine for fertility in women with PCOS. In a pilot study, women with POCS were given berberine, and ovulation improved by an average of 25% after four months.
For women with PCOS who become pregnant, berberine may help reduce complications, including miscarriage, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia.
It’s often more challenging to lose weight with PCOS, and berberine may help reduce the secretion of leptin, a hormone that stimulates the appetite.
Berberine has also been shown to be effective at helping with inhibiting lipase, which is an enzyme responsible for fat storage.
There are a number of studies that show berberine can be helpful for weight loss, especially in the abdominal area.
Berberine may help reduce fatty liver, which is another complication that’s frequent with PCOS. Berberine can potentially lower liver function enzymes and improve the organ’s overall function. It can also lower triglycerides and prevent fat buildup in the liver.
While the benefits of berberine on metabolic health, weight, heart, and cholesterol health are more well understood, the gut is often overlooked.
Berberine has a lot of gut health benefits.
Berberine may help develop a healthier mix of gut flora. In animal studies, when bacteria from the lower intestine of mice were exposed to berberine, it improved their composition and function. These benefits may be because berberine is a natural antimicrobial and may help balance gut microbes.
There are also possible gut health benefits because berberine reduces inflammation.
Other Benefits of Berberine
Some of the many other potential benefits of this plant alkaloid include:
- In animal studies, berberine has been found to have anti-depressant effects.
- In animal and test tube studies, berberine has reduced the growth and spread of different cancers.
- Berberine is a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
- We mentioned this above in the context of PCOS, but even in people without this condition who have fatty liver, berberine may help reduce that buildup of fat.
- In one study, berberine significantly improved heart failure symptoms and reduced the risk of death in patients with heart failure.
- A berberine supplement may help fight infections caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.
How to Take Berberine
As with other supplements, berberine isn’t regulated by the FDA, so there isn’t a standard dosage. Typically, the best way to figure out how to take a supplement is to look at the available research and see what dosage is used in clinical trials.
Most studies use berberine doses of between 1,000 and 1,500 mg per day.
Berberine has a half-life of just a few hours, so it doesn’t stay in your system for long, making it a good idea to take divided doses throughout the day.
When choosing berberine supplements, most have around 500 mg per capsule, so you might take one capsule three times a day before meals.
The biggest issue with berberine is that it’s got a low bioavailability and isn’t well-absorbed. Only a small amount of what you’re taking in supplement form will likely make it past your digestive process and be absorbed. You need to choose a high-quality berberine supplement designed for absorption, which is why we recommend the following brands.
Is Berberine Safe?
Berberine is thought to be a safe supplement for most people, but some people might experience digestive symptoms.
For example, in one study, some participants who took it experienced constipation, gas and diarrhea, although it appeared to get better within four weeks.
If you have high blood pressure, the blood pressure-lowering benefits of berberine are important, but if you take a blood pressure medicine, it could interact with berberine and cause your levels to get too low.
If you’re taking any medications, you should speak to your doctor before trying berberine because of possible interactions.
Berberine is a widely studied supplement with benefits and effects similar to pharmaceutical drugs, but it’s still a natural product.
Benefits of berberine can include lowering blood sugar and blood pressure, helping with weight loss, promoting heart health, and helping with symptoms of PCOS and metabolic syndrome.
Please remember this isn’t medical advice, and you should speak to your doctor before trying berberine or any other supplement.