Berberine: Can it Lower My Cholesterol?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 71 million Americans have high cholesterol. Considering how many people have high cholesterol, it’s not surprising that some would consider alternative treatments, such as supplements. Berberine is one of the herbal supplements that have recently become more popular for treating high cholesterol.

Berberine is an alkaloid, which is a chemical compound found in several plants such as goldenseal. For centuries, this herb was used by a number of Native American tribes for medicinal purposes, including stomach ulcers and eye irritation. Other herbs that contain berberine are Chinese goldthread (Coptis trifolia), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). It’s also found in roots, rhizomes, and the stem bark of these plants.

What Is It Good For?

Berberine’s earliest use can be traced back to China some 3,000 years ago. Historically, it was used to fight bacterial and fungal infections, treat diarrhea, and ease stomach issues. Because of its yellow color, berberine is also sometimes used as a dye for coloring materials such as wool.

Experts believe that berberine’s health benefits are connected to the way it affects AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). This is the enzyme that controls the way your body produces and uses energy. If the body’s AMPK levels are unbalanced, this can affect how your body regulates cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

In more recent years, research has started to identify other potential uses. Recent studies on animals indicate that berberine might have some potential as a treatment for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. That being said, many researchers remain unconvinced of its use for these conditions in its current forms.

What About Cholesterol?

One study showed that berberine can effectively reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels in hamsters fed a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet. A 2012 study using human subjects found that three 500 mg doses of berberine a day for 12 weeks was more effective in lowering cholesterol than ezetimibe.

Ezetimibe is a statin that is commonly found in medications for high cholesterol. Unfortunately, some people are unable to tolerate the side effects of statins. Berberine may be a safe alternative for these people. Because it works in a different way than statins, it can also be combined with the drugs as a more effective treatment than using either alone.

Is It Safe?

In its pure form, berberine is generally considered safe for adults. It is not considered safe for pregnant or lactating women or infants and has been associated with fatalities. Also, the various plants that contain berberine may have their own side effects. It’s also important to remember that supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means private manufacturers are responsible for making sure their products are safe for human use. These products could potentially contain other additives that may be harmful.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t take berberine because it can cause or worsen jaundice in babies. It may also lead to kernicterus, a rare type of brain damage.

Studies on berberine show encouraging results for its potential in treating cholesterol and other conditions. However, most of this research has involved animals, with only a few small human trials. Larger studies will be needed before berberine becomes widely accepted as a treatment.