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 (2).
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 (3).
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 (4). 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.
This enzyme is sometimes referred to as a “metabolic master switch” (6).
Berberine also affects various other molecules inside cells, and may even affect which genes are turned on or off (4).
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 (9).
It seems to work via multiple different mechanisms (11):
- 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.
In one study of 116 diabetic patients, 1 gram of berberine per day lowered fasting blood sugar by 20%, from 7.0 to 5.6 mmol/L (126 to 101 mg/dL), or from diabetic to normal levels (12).
It also lowered hemoglobin A1c by 12% (a marker for long-term blood sugar levels), and also improved blood lipids like cholesterol and triglycerides (12).
According to a big review of 14 studies, berberine is as effective as oral diabetes drugs, including metformin, glipizide and rosiglitazone (13).
It works very well with lifestyle modifications, and also has additive effects when administered with other blood sugar lowering drugs (2).
If you look at discussions online, you often see people with sky-high blood sugars literally normalizing them just by taking this supplement.
This stuff really works, both in the studies and the real world.
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 studies 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 researchers believe that the weight loss is caused by improved function of fat-regulating hormones, such as insulin, adiponectin and leptin.
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 (18):
- Lower total cholesterol by 0.61 mmol/L (24 mg/dL).
- Lower LDL cholesterol 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).
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:
- Depression: Rat studies show that it may help fight depression (23, 24, 25).
- Cancer: Test tube and animal studies have shown that it can reduce the growth and spread of various different types of cancer (26, 27).
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory: It has been shown to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in some studies (28, 29, 30).
- Infections: It has been shown to fight harmful microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites (31, 32, 33, 34).
- Fatty liver: It can reduce fat build-up in the liver, which should help protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (35, 36).
- Heart failure: One study showed that it drastically improved symptoms and reduced risk of death in heart failure patients (37).
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 (10).
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.
Berberine is one of very few supplements that are as effective as a drug.
It has powerful effects on various aspects of health, especially blood sugar control.
The people who stand to benefit the most are individuals with type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome.
However, it may also be useful as a general protection against chronic disease, as well as an anti-aging supplement.
If you use supplements, then berberine may be one of the top ones to include in your arsenal.
I’ve personally been taking it for a few weeks now, for general health improvement.
I plan to continue taking it, and I look forward to seeing more research on this promising health-promoting substance.