Berberine is a plant extract that has been studied for its abilities to control blood sugar more effectively and combat some of the negative effects of being overweight. Berberine’s ability to modulate how your body transports and uses glucose in the blood are responsible for these targeted benefits.
Want to know more about berberine’s optimal uses? Read on for more info on what the scientific research has to say about berberine supplementation.
1. Berberine can modify your body’s ability to control blood sugar
Altering body processes on a molecular level, this supplement rivals the effects of pharmaceutical drugs for controlling blood sugar.
Bioactive substances are present in the berberis shrub and other plants from which berberine is extracted. (1) An alkaloid imbued with bright yellow coloring, the compound has been used in the past as a dye, as well as in traditional Chinese medicine.
2. Berberine may also help decrease blood cholesterol levels
Berberine has been shown to drop total cholesterol levels in clinical trials; it can improve LDL cholesterol profiles (the bad kind), and aid in the management of type 2 diabetes. (2)
3. The cholesterol-lowering properties of berberine could improve heart health
The most common cause of premature death worldwide is heart disease, and berberine has a positive effect on several blood markers associated with a greater risk of developing this deadly disorder.
A meta-analysis reviewing 11 studies of how berberine affected risk factors presented these conclusions: (3) berberine leads to decreases in total cholesterol, increases in HDL (good) cholesterol, and decreases in LDL (bad) cholesterol and blood triglycerides.
Diabetics and others with high blood sugar levels are more likely to develop heart disease, so the positive effects of berberine on these factors should also reduce risks.
4. Berberine exerts powerful effects on your body’s metabolic system
Berberine has shown great promise in treating symptoms of type 2 diabetes, a metabolic disorder that has become disturbingly common in the modern world.
Globally, nearly 10% of adults suffered from diabetes in 2012, and fatalities directly attributed to the disease in the same year were estimated at a staggering million and a half (4).
Diabetic patients experience high blood glucose (blood sugar) levels that result from one of these physical disorders: not enough insulin produced in the body; or cell resistance to insulin. Both circumstances can inflict physical damage on organs and tissues over long periods of time.
5. Berberine has been studied for controlling blood sugar levels for patients diagnosed with type 2 diabetes
Over a three-month clinical trial, the natural substance performed comparably to metformin, a pharmaceutical drug used to treat hypoglycemia (5,6).
This natural substance appears to affect blood sugar through several different mechanisms (7).
The following process occurs: Decreases the speed at which carbohydrates are broken down in the gut, drops the production of sugar in the liver, bumps up glycolysis, which helps the body break down cell sugars more effectively, amps up the effectiveness of insulin, which lowers blood sugar, and increases friendly bacteria in the gut, functioning like a probiotic.
Diabetic patients taking a gram of berberine daily dropped blood sugar levels into normal ranges during a three-month study. Triglycerides and cholesterol also improved, as well as measurements of hemoglobin A1c, which is a long-term indicator of high blood sugar levels (8).
When analysts reviewed data from 14 studies, they found berberine as effective in lowering blood sugar levels as three separate oral medications used to treat diabetes: glipizide, rosiglitizone, and as mentioned above, metformin (9).
6. Berberine could help with weight loss
Two separate studies recently examined the impact of berberine supplements on weight loss in humans.
In a 12-week trial with obese participants, average weight loss amounted to about 5 pounds, with a 3.6% loss of body fat. Berberine was administered at 500 mg three times daily (10).
Another 3-month study focused on the effects of berberine with 37 subjects diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. This group took even less berberine: 900 mg split into three daily doses (11).
The average body mass index (BMI) measurements of test participants dropped from 31.5 to 27.4 during the trial, shifting them from obese to overweight. Belly fat decreased significantly, and other health markers also improved.
Changes appear to result from alterations to hormones that regulate fat storage, including insulin, leptin and adiponectin. Berberine is believed to suppress the formation of fat cells at the molecular level. (12, 13).
7. Berberine may help people with irritable bowel syndrome
The effects of berberine on fat metabolism and cellular energy processing is fairly well-studied, but an emerging body of scientific literature suggests that berberine could also be helpful for gastrointestinal problems that can be traced to irritable bowel syndrome.
A randomized controlled trial published in 2015 in the journal Phytotherapy Research split 132 people into two groups. One received a placebo, while the other took a berberine supplement that delivered 800 mg per day split into two equal doses (14).
The subjects were followed for eight weeks. After analyzing the results, the researchers found that the people receiving the berberine supplement had decreased abdominal pain, decreased diarrhea, and improvements in other gastrointestinal symptoms compared to the placebo group.
Berberine side effects
Berberine can cause mild stomach problems. Berberine is considered very safe, although some experience digestive distress, including diarrhea, flatulence, stomach pain or cramping, and constipation (15).
One study of 84 people with type two diabetes reported that five of the subjects who were randomly assigned to take berberine experienced mild constipation, which is in line with some other research suggesting that berberine could alter the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract.
Berberine could cause constipation. While some research indicates that these effects are helpful in people with irritable bowel syndrome, the study mentioned above suggests that others who are healthy could experience constipation as a side effect of berberine.
Since this powerful substance is fairly new to the supplement scene, you may not find it in health food stores, but it’s available online. Talk to your doctor before taking berberine, especially if you’re currently on medications to lower blood sugar.
Berberine could interact with prescription medications like metformin. Berberine’s ability to interact with other medications is not well understood, and many people who have trouble with blood sugar take medications like metformin to keep their blood sugar controlled.
While at least one clinical trial has tested berberine in combination with metformin without any negative side effects, more research needs to be done to confirm the safety of berberine and drug combinations in the long term (16).
Most studies use 900-1500 mg of berberine per day. Because berberine’s half-life is several hours, spreading dosages over the day is most effective; amounts used in clinical studies in humans ranged from a total of 900 to 1500 mg daily, usually taken 30 minutes before meals.
Spreading dosage out across the day is more effective. When making our rankings, we only included berberine supplements that had doses that were convenient to parse out into multiple daily servings. For example, with 450 mg of berberine per capsule, it’s quite easy to get 900 or 1350 mg in two or three equally-spaced doses.
It’s not clear to what extent berberine’s absorption is positively or negatively affected by the presence of other compounds, so we can’t yet say whether you should take it on an empty stomach or after a meal.
Berberine benefits FAQs
Q: What foods contain berberine?
A: You can’t get berberine in any common foods, unless you can find barberries, goldenseal, or goldenthread at your local grocery store. It’s a compound that’s only found in a small number of plants, most of which are native to China.
To get berberine in any significant amount, you’ll need to take a berberine supplement.
Q: Is there berberine in turmeric?
A: No, berberine comes from a different plant species than the plant that produces turmeric and its primary active ingredient, curcumin.
They do, however, have some crossover on the possible health benefits of their active ingredients. Both berberine and turmeric are thought to help lower blood lipids, though they likely do so through different mechanisms.
Some very preliminary research has explored using both of these herbal extracts in combination to potentially treat type two diabetes, but this research hasn’t even been tested in humans yet.
Q: Does berberine kill good bacteria?
A: Actually, quite the contrary—scientific evidence may suggest that berberine might actually alter your body’s probiotic bacteria populations in a beneficial way.
A paper published in the Medical Science Monitor in 2011 argues that the benefits of berberine on metabolic symptoms can be attributed to alterations in probiotic bacteria levels (17).
However, at the time of writing, there were no direct experiments confirming this hypothesis. Surprisingly, little research has followed up on this line of thought, but at least there is no evidence suggesting that berberine has a negative effect on the gut microbiome in your body.
Q: Is berberine safe to take long term?
A: The long-term safety of berberine (beyond studies lasting a few months or so) has not yet been established. That’s because research on berberine in humans is fairly new, and we don’t know how berberine’s effects play out over the long term.
However, berberine appears to be both safe and effective when taken for periods of at least eight to twelve weeks, with only mild gastrointestinal side effects like constipation and stomach pain reported in a few people in these studies, so there’s a decent chance future research will find that berberine is safe over the long run.
Related: Our best berberine picks
Berberine shows an impressive range of focused health benefits, from improved blood sugar control to lower cholesterol levels to improvements in weight loss.
Aside from mild gastrointestinal complaints in a minority of people, research suggests that berberine is very safe, and its benefits could help improve your body’s ability to regulate its metabolic system, including improving your control over your blood glucose levels.