Berberine is a natural alkaloid present in goldenseal, barberry, Oregon grape, and hundreds of other plants. These plants have been used in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine for more than 3,000 years to treat a wide range of conditions, including intestinal disorders, inflammation, wound healing, and skin problems.
This versatile phytonutrient didn’t get much attention in the Western medical literature until about 12 years ago, when small clinical trials demonstrated its remarkable ability to lower blood sugar and lipids.
My interest was piqued, but at that time berberine supplements were so hard to come by that I had to have them specially made. I began recommending berberine for my patients with diabetes—and they began reporting significant improvements not only in blood sugar, but also in blood pressure, markers of liver and heart health, and weight.
Today, more than 6,000 scientific papers on berberine have been published in peer reviewed medical journals. Given its positive effects on inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles, metabolism, and the gut microbiota, I am convinced that berberine is one of the most beneficial and versatile of all natural therapies.
Reduces Blood Sugar
Berberine really shines when it comes to blood sugar control. It triggers an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) that serves as a cellular regulator of metabolism. AMPK improves insulin sensitivity, helps move glucose into the cells, and reduces the liver’s production of glucose.
Studies show that berberine works as well as leading oral diabetes drugs. A meta-analysis of 14 randomized clinical trials involving more than 1,000 participants compared the outcomes of berberine versus popular diabetes drugs (metformin, glipizide, and rosiglitizone) for lowering blood sugar. Berberine was every bit as effective as the prescription drugs.
Lowers Cholesterol & Triglycerides
Another benefit of berberine seen in the early clinical trials is improvements in lipid profiles. By increasing the activity of LDL receptors in the liver, berberine enhances the clearance of LDL cholesterol from the body.
A number of clinical trials have pitted berberine against statins, the blockbuster drugs that are routinely prescribed for high cholesterol. In most of these studies, berberine performed as well as moderate-intensity statin drugs, reducing LDL cholesterol by 20–50 mg/dL and increasing protective HDL cholesterol. However, berberine was much more effective than the drugs at lowering triglycerides, with average reductions of 25–55 mg/dL.
Benefits Heart Health
Favorable changes in lipids is just one of berberine’s cardiovascular effects. Additional research on multiple cardiovascular risk factors suggests an important role for berberine in heart health.
- Hypertension: Because it stimulates the release of nitric oxide (NO), which relaxes and protects the arteries, berberine is good for high blood pressure.
- Atherosclerosis: Berberine’s ability to boost NO, along with its antioxidant activity, helps to curtail the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, discouraging plaque buildup in the arteries.
- Arrhythmias: Small studies have demonstrated positive effects of berberine on irregular heartbeat.
- Heart failure: Berberine helps strengthen the heart’s contractions, which along with its other cardiovascular benefits, makes it a promising adjunct therapy for heart failure.
Aids in Weight Loss
I am not suggesting that berberine is a magic bullet that will magically melt away excess pounds. However, adding this supplement to a healthy diet and exercise program may enhance weight loss efforts.
Several studies have shown that supplemental berberine helps lower both body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference. In one of these studies, patients with metabolic syndrome who took berberine three times a day for three months had a marked reduction in BMI—from 31.5 (obese) to 27.4 (overweight). They also lost an average of two inches around the waist.
Treats Liver Disease
Berberine also has a role in the prevention and treatment of our most common liver disorder: nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD, which is widespread in individuals who have diabetes and/or are obese, is characterized by unhealthy fatty deposits in the liver.
Researchers randomly assigned patients with NAFLD to one of three groups: lifestyle interventions, lifestyle interventions plus an oral diabetes drug, or lifestyle interventions plus 500 mg of berberine three times a day. Berberine came out on top. In addition to experiencing a significant reduction in liver fat content, participants in the group taking berberine also reported modest weight loss and improvements in lipids.
Relieves Digestive Disorders
Plants rich in berberine have long been used by traditional healers to treat digestive disorders. Its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties plus its positive impact on the gut microbiome are believed to be a key to many of berberine’s health benefits.
These attributes make berberine a useful treatment for a number of gastrointestinal complaints—ranging from diarrhea and bacterial overgrowth to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, and other inflammatory bowel diseases. In a placebo-controlled study involving patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS, volunteers who took 400 mg of berberine a day for eight weeks had marked improvements in diarrhea frequency, urgency, abdominal pain, and quality of life.
Protects Against Neurodegenerative Disorders
Berberine’s potent anti-inflammatory effects encompass neuroinflammation—excessive inflammation in the brain, which is a hallmark of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Berberine has been shown to not only reduce markers of inflammation in the brain but also inhibit the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Granted, this research is preliminary. But given the dismal failure of drug trials for Alzheimer’s, I find it encouraging that berberine may offer some protection against this dreaded disease.
Helps Prevent Cancer
Research suggests that cancer prevention and treatment is yet another potential benefit of berberine. Lab studies demonstrate that berberine inhibits the growth of several human cancer cell lines, induces apoptosis, curbs the development of blood vessels that feed tumors, and helps prevent metastasis.
In a 2020 double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial published in a Lancet journal, researchers found that supplemental berberine significantly reduced the number of recurrent colorectal adenomas (polyps) in participants undergoing repeat colonoscopies. They concluded, "The low cost and safety profile of berberine suggest its potential in the chemoprevention of colorectal cancer."
Berberine is nowhere close to being an accepted cancer treatment. Yet, because this natural compound also enhances sensitivity to chemotherapy and radiation, thus improving their efficacy, it should be considered as an adjunct therapy.
How Much Berberine Should You Take?
The typical berberine dose is 500 mg 2–3 times a day, taken before meals. Side effects are minimal, and it is generally well tolerated. However, in some people it may cause constipation, which usually clears up over time or with a lower dose.