Berberine Health Benefits for Blood Sugar Support

05/19/2021 | 14 min. read

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

Many Americans suffer from a host of chronic health issues, especially high or low blood sugar. Commonly associated with diabetes, blood sugar support is tough to find without ingesting potentially harmful prescription drugs.

However, there might be another way to get blood sugar support and potentially treat a variety of other conditions like diabetes. It’s through a compound called berberine, which is a natural ingredient found in plant species throughout the world.

Never heard of it? That’s okay – it’s still a relatively new supplement option and a lot of research is still being done on how exactly berberine affects the body, as well as why it seems to provide so many excellent health benefits.

This guide will break down everything you need to know about berberine as a compound, plus go over dosage levels and why you might consider taking berberine as a regular supplement. We’ll also dive deep into the specific benefits you might see in terms of blood sugar support, diabetes management, and more through regular berberine supplementation.

Let’s get started!

What is Berberine?

Berberine is a compound typically found in a variety of plant species, including Oregon grapes, goldthread, European barberry, and more. All of these plants have been used historically as wellness remedies to treat sores, infections, and more.

In fact, there’s some evidence that berberine was used over 3000 years ago for medicinal purposes. Various barberry plants were harvested and used in both South Asia and China. The use of the plant spread to the Middle East, Europe, and South America as earlier people began to understand its value and used it to treat a variety of conditions.

In the modern era, berberine is currently being investigated by medical authorities as a potential treatment for things like high cholesterol, diabetes, and more. Though the science is still in its earliest stages, there’s lots of good evidence piling up that berberine is a particularly effective active ingredient in supplements and even some medicines of the future.

Berberine is a type of alkaloid, which gives it a yellow color if you ever see it in powder form. Most berberine supplements come in capsules, however, and may use vegetable casings of any color.

How Can Berberine Help?

Exactly how berberine can be of benefit to people is still under some investigation. However, we do know a little bit about how your body absorbs berberine after it is ingested.

In a nutshell, berberine is quickly transported to the bloodstream after ingesting it as a powder or capsule. As the bloodstream absorbs the berberine, this compound binds to various molecular targets inside individual cells.

Given enough time and under the right circumstances, berberine can actually change how different cells function. In this way, berberine is pretty similar to the active ingredients found in many pharmaceutical drugs.

To get even more specific, berberine is thought to activate a particular enzyme called AMPK, or AMP-activated protein kinase. Within individual cells, this enzyme affects the metabolism – in fact, it’s sometimes called a metabolic master switch. You can find AMPK in all kinds of cells and organs, including your muscles, kidney, heart, brain, and liver.

In general, AMPK is needed to regulate your body's metabolism, which can be thought of as the rate at which it burns through fuel for energy and how quickly cells undergo various reactions.

Besides this primary effect, berberine can have ancillary effects on the molecules inside your cells. There’s some evidence to suggest that berberine can even affect which genes are turned on or off inside your cells (which may be how it changes cellular functions).

Benefits of Berberine Supplements

Now that you know what berberine is and how it works, we can get into the potential benefits you might see from a berberine supplement. Remember that many of the below benefits are still being investigated.

But each effect below does have at least some scientific evidence indicating that berberine, rather than other factors or compounds, is the key agent causing the benefit in question.

Lowers Blood Sugar

One of the biggest potential benefits of berberine is blood sugar reduction. Therefore, it’s of particular interest to those suffering from type II diabetes: an increasingly common and always serious disease that currently causes millions of deaths each year.

Type II diabetes is characterized by elevated glucose or blood sugar levels and can be caused by either not enough insulin or high insulin resistance, which means that your body doesn’t absorb enough insulin even if there’s plenty present in the blood.

What exactly is insulin resistance? In short, insulin resistance develops when the cells in your liver, muscles, and various fat deposits don’t respond to insulin, which is a key hormone your body uses to take energy from glucose. This can eventually cause a chain reaction where your pancreas makes more insulin and causes your blood sugar levels to go up.

How does this relate to high blood sugar? You see, high blood sugar levels can cause ongoing damage to your body’s organs and other tissues. Given enough time and development, high blood sugar can shorten your lifespan by leading to several serious health problems.

Berberine can potentially assist with all these issues. That’s because some studies show that berberine can reduce blood sugar levels, especially for individuals with type II diabetes.

How exactly this works is still somewhat up to debate, but there’s evidence to suggest that it works through various vectors rather than just one, including:

  • Lowering insulin resistance throughout the body, which obviously is only helpful for type II diabetes caused by insulin resistance. Berberine is thought to increase the effectiveness of insulin across the board.
  • Boosting glycolysis, which is a chemical process in which your body breaks down the sugar inside cells for energy.
  • Lowering sugar production in your liver, which has the passive effect of lowering blood sugar overall.
  • Slowing down how quickly your body breaks down carbohydrates in the gut. Carbohydrates are the primary source of short-term energy and fuel for all bodily functions. By slowing down how quickly your body burns through carbs, your blood sugar levels are mediated.
  • Boosting how much beneficial bacteria you have in your gut microbiome. Your gut microbiome is a collection of normally healthy bacteria that assist with digestion and that prevent harmful bacteria from settling in the intestinal tract. This can play a big role in hormone levels throughout your body as well as your risk of developing diabetes.

There are currently many studies showing that berberine can be as effective as other oral diabetic drugs, including Metformin, Glipizide, and Rosiglitazone.

While nothing is fully understood or guaranteed quite yet, there’s plenty of evidence showing that berberine can be incredibly helpful when it comes to lowering blood sugar.

Lowers Blood Pressure

Alongside high blood sugar, high blood pressure is also a serious risk for millions of Americans. Associated with both strokes and general heart disease, high blood pressure is no joke and should be lowered as soon as possible.

Berberine might be able to help lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure when taken as a supplement. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure are the top and bottom numbers of your blood pressure reading, respectively.

But it’s important to recognize that berberine alone may not be particularly effective at lowering high blood pressure. Specifically, certain meta-analyses have found that berberine is most effective for this use when it is combined with other blood pressure-lowering drugs.

In this instance, berberine might be better as an ancillary blood pressure compound rather than a primary active ingredient. More science is likely necessary before we fully understand how and why berberine has these effects on blood pressure.

Lowers the Risk of Heart Disease

Did you know heart disease is the first world’s most common cause of premature death? Fortunately, berberine may be able to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease across the board.

Many Americans suffer from heart disease sooner rather than later because of things like bad dietary practices, a lack of exercise, or even genetic factors. Berberine may be able to help with many or even all of these factors according to a review of 11 studies.

In short, berberine may be able to:

  • Lower total bodily cholesterol
  • Lower LDL or harmful cholesterol
  • Improve HDL or helpful cholesterol
  • Lower blood triglycerides

What are “good” and “bad” cholesterol? Cholesterol comes in two types: high density lipoprotein or HDL and low-density lipoprotein or LDL. The former is better cholesterol while the latter is considered to be unhelpful at best.

Why? Because HDL carries cholesterol from your blood to your liver, where it can be removed from your bloodstream before it builds up and forms clots inside your arteries. Naturally, this means LDL takes cholesterol to your arteries and can eventually lead to plaque buildup. In the worst-case scenarios, this can cause heart attacks, strokes, and other forms of heart disease.

As for triglycerides, berberine lowering these in your blood is helpful because triglycerides are a major component of cholesterol. Think of them as unused and unhelpful calories that your body normally stores in fat. But if you eat too many calories each day (which is a big concern for Americans given our collective dietary habits), triglycerides can build up in the blood.

You guessed it: this can lead to an increased risk for heart attacks. All in all, berberine potentially lowering the levels of these compounds in your blood (or improving HDL levels) all relates to better overall heart health and a lower risk for heart disease.

Additionally, berberine can lower a particular compound called apolipoprotein B by between 13% and 15%. This particular protein is linked to heart disease very closely, so lowering it may also lower one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease as they get older.

Berberine may be able to provide these helpful benefits by inhibiting the function of an enzyme called PCSK9. As a result, more LDL cholesterol is removed from your bloodstream passively, increasing the ratio of good cholesterol to harmful cholesterol overall.

As with many of the other potential benefits of berberine, keep in mind that it is not a wonder drug, nor can it solve all of your health problems for you. But when combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise, berberine may be able to lower the risk of heart disease significantly.

May Help with Weight Loss

There’s also some evidence to suggest that berberine can be an effective weight loss supplement under certain circumstances.

The above-linked study was a 12-week experiment involving several obese individuals. The test individuals took 500 mg of berberine three times per day and the study participants, on average, lost 5 pounds of weight over the course of the study, as well as 3.6% of their total body fat.

There are other studies on this as well. It seems that berberine may be able to inspire better weight loss by improving the function of various fat regulating hormones. These include hormones like insulin, leptin, and adiponectin. Additionally, berberine may be able to prevent the growth of fat cells at the molecular level – this might be because of the above-mentioned possibility that berberine changes the function or molecular structure of various cells.

Although this sounds great, it’s important to recognize that berberine alone cannot help you lose hundreds of pounds of weight or even achieve more manageable weight loss goals. Instead, you might consider adding berberine to an existing weight loss plan or routine.

A good diet, regular exercise, and overall wellness are key to maintaining a healthy body weight over the long term.

Anti-Inflammatory Effects

“Inflammation” in the biological sense is overall cellular damage and degradation. Inflammation is important since it’s a major factor in a variety of common health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Interestingly, berberine may have anti-inflammatory properties. It’s not exactly an antioxidant (which is a type of molecule that captures free radical molecules to prevent them from damaging nearby cells), but it might still be able to help treat inflammation-related health conditions like diabetes or even certain autoimmune disorders.

Canker Sore Relief

Odds are you’ve experienced at least a couple of canker sores throughout your life. These small and painful spots crop up in and around the mouth, sometimes because of high blood sugar, but oftentimes because of a variety of other issues like elevated hormone levels.

Berberine might be effective at reducing pain, redness, and the overall size of canker sore ulcers when directly applied to the sores themselves.

How does it do this? It’s thought that berberine’s anti-inflammatory effects lower the severity of canker sores that have already developed in your mouth. By reducing tissue inflammation, your body eliminates canker sores a little more quickly than it would normally.

Helps Maintain Blood Sugar Affected By Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition that occurs when a female has abnormally high levels of various male hormones like testosterone. As a long-term syndrome, this can have wide-ranging effects on hormones and metabolic levels, as well as lead to issues like infertility.

Berberine cannot necessarily assist with PCOS directly. But it does help with a variety of conditions that are typically linked to PCOS. People with PCOS normally have high levels of insulin and/or diabetes, high blood pressure, higher than average body weight, and high cholesterol.

As berberine can help with most or all of these issues in other cases, it may also be a potentially helpful treatment for PCOS. There are already some studies showing that berberine has significant promise as a treatment for PCOS, provided that the individual’s condition is derived from insulin resistance. As with many other potential berberine benefits, however, more research is needed before health experts can confirm its effectiveness in this area.

How Much Berberine Should You Take?

That depends on what your doctor recommends and what you are taking the berberine for. These days, you can find berberine supplements in capsule form, with most offering berberine amounts of between 1000 and 1500 mg per day. Other supplements might have smaller dosages of berberine available, like 500 mg per capsule.

One big thing to note before taking berberine is that it has a half-life of several hours. This means you need to take berberine in smaller and more consistent dosages if you want the level of berberine in your blood to remain stable. Therefore, lots of berberine supplements will recommend that you take 500 mg three times per day before each meal for a total of 1500 mg per day.

Here’s a breakdown of how much and when you should take berberine for a variety of different health issues based on available evidence:

  • If taking berberine for blood sugar, take between 0.9 and 1.5 g daily for between two and four months. Check in with your doctor regularly to see how the berberine treatment is progressing and whether there are any noticeable effects.
  • If taking berberine for high cholesterol, take between 0.6 and 1.5 g daily for between six and 24 months. As with taking berberine for diabetes, speak to your doctor regularly to monitor your progress.
  • If taking berberine for high blood pressure, take 0.9 g daily for two months.
  • If taking berberine for canker sore treatments, use a gel that contains 5 mg of berberine per gram and apply it four times daily for five days.

However, the above guidelines are just that: guidelines. They’re meant to be general estimates for good berberine dosage levels. You can and should speak to your doctor extensively about starting any berberine supplement regimen, as well as ask them whether berberine is a good choice for your unique needs.

Is There a Risk of Side Effects with Berberine? 

Fortunately, there’s no real evidence to suggest that berberine is seriously harmful or dangerous. No serious side effects have been recorded at this time.

That being said, berberine can cause a variety of mild to moderate digestive side effects, including:

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Stomachaches

In addition, berberine has previously caused some other mild headaches like rashes or headaches in some people who have taken these supplements for various issues.

Furthermore, it’s never recommended that you use berberine if you are pregnant or breastfeeding without the explicit recommendation of a doctor. We still don’t know how berberine may affect a developing baby or fetus, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

This also means that it’s crucial to only give children berberine supplements if you are recommended to do so by a doctor. Kids’ bodies developed in different ways from adults’ and giving them additional supplements without consulting with a medical expert beforehand can lead to potentially severe side effects.

Summary

All in all, berberine is a potentially helpful compound for a wide range of major health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, and maybe even certain types of cancer. There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done on berberine and its true effects on the body.

For now, you can rest assured that berberine supplements aren’t harmful and may very well give your body the boost it needs to reach your unique wellness goals.

Healthy Directions Staff Editor