Berberine is being researched as a potential treatment for a variety of conditions including diabetes, high cholesterol and polycystic ovary syndrome. The chemical works by binding to individual enzymes, including DNA and RNA, or by binding to other parts of the cells and changing their functions, and can have several health benefits. 1
What is Berberine?
Berberine is a chemical found in a variety of plants including Oregon grape, European barberry, phellodendron and more. Medicinal use of berberine dates back more than 3,000 years, originating in China and South Asia where they would use the stem, leaves and bark of the barberry plant in different treatments. 1
Benefits of Berberine
Reduce Cholesterol Levels
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States and accounts for approximately 13% of deaths. Risk factors for heart disease include obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. According to heart.org, 38.1% of US adults have raised cholesterol levels and 11.5% of US adults have very high cholesterol levels. 2
Berberine has shown promising results in helping to reduce overall cholesterol levels, as well as LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), and blood triglyceride levels. In a review of 12 studies, it was found that berberine can lower levels of LDL cholesterol on average by 20 to 50 mg/dL, or 20-30%. It is important to note that a majority of these studies reviewed used capsules containing berberine and other herbal products. 3
In another review including 11 studies, it was found that total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol were lowered on average by 24 to 25 mg/DL. Further, it showed berberine to lower blood triglycerides by 44 mg/dL and raise HDL cholesterol (the “good" cholesterol) by 2 mg/dL. The studies included in this review did not use any other medications or herbal products other than berberine, meaning berberine by itself may be effective in reducing cholesterol and risk of heart disease. 4
Lower Blood Sugar Levels
Berberine has shown to help reduce blood sugar (glucose) levels over time by working in several different ways. This is beneficial for those who have Type 2 diabetes as it causes elevated levels of glucose, with some saying the effectiveness of berberine can be compared to metformin, a drug used to manage diabetes.
How Berberine may work to lower blood sugar: 5
- Reduces resistance to insulin, making insulin more effective
- Increases glycolysis which helps the body break down sugar
- Decreases amount of sugar produced by the liver
- Slows breakdown of carbohydrates which may help prevent blood sugar spikes after meals
- Increases the amount of good bacteria in the gut
One study found that fasting blood sugar was lowered by 20% in diabetic patients with 1 gram of berberine per day. This study also found beneficial effects to A1c and blood lipids like cholesterol and triglycerides.6
It has also been found that pairing berberine with lifestyle modifications can be very effective. A review compared the effectiveness of berberine versus medications such as metformin, glipizise and rosiglitazone. The results showed that when paired with lifestyle modifications, berberine is effective in managing blood sugar levels. 7
Berberine may aid with weight loss as it is one of few compounds that has shown to activate and increase AMPK, an enzyme which regulates how energy is produced within the body and acts as an energy control switch. AMPK highly impacts the functionality of the mitochondria and metabolism and is considered the “guardian” of your metabolism by some. AMPK is referred to as the “metabolic switch” because it encourages the body to use fat as fuel for energy. 8
Berberine can help with weight loss in multiple ways like managing blood sugar levels and providing similar benefits to exercise. Berberine can inhibit the lipoprotein lipase, which delivers fat to the tissue in the body after the carbohydrates are broken down. 8
Berberine and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition where ovaries produce abnormal amounts of androgens, a sex hormone usually found in small amounts in women. PCOS can cause enlarged ovaries with small cysts and come with symptoms like menstrual irregularity, excess hair, acne and obesity. The cause of PCOS is not well understood and complications can include infertility, Type 2 Diabetes, endometrial cancer and more. 9 PCOS is one of the leading causes of female infertility, affecting as many as 5 million women.10 Berberine has shown to have potential for managing certain complications and symptoms of PCOS.
Benefits of Berberine for PCOS
Lower Resistance to Insulin & Reduce Blood Sugar
Up to 75% of PCOS patients are insulin resistant, which causes an increase in blood sugar. This causes the body to overproduce insulin as the body needs higher levels of insulin to maintain blood sugar levels. This can eventually develop into type 2 diabetes. Berberine can help to lower resistance to insulin and reduce blood sugar levels as shown by a review including over 1,000 women. 11
PCOS can cause an increase in excess body fat and result in patients being overweight or obese, which worsen complications of the condition. Berberine has shown to stimulate the redistribution of fatty tissue which can reduce additional fat. One study found that berberine can be more effective at helping to manage weight and reduce male hormone levels more than metformin. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness for berberine and weight management, but the results so far have been promising.12
Lower Cholesterol Levels
Another complication associated with PCOS is a higher risk of heart disease. As discussed earlier, berberine can help to manage certain aspects that cause higher risks of heart disease like lowering triglycerides and LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol.
Dosing and Side Effects
Berberine has shown to have promising benefits for many other conditions that have not been researched as well. These include depression, cancer, infections, heart failure and more. Most studies have used dosages between 900 mg and 1500 mg per day. These are normally broken up into multiple capsules throughout the day, often taken before meals.
Berberine levels normally decrease by 50% after a few hours, so taking it throughout the day in smaller doses is the best way to achieve stable levels.
With its long list of benefits, many may wonder what are the side effects of berberine? It has shown to have few side effects in studies but there is the risk of cramping, diarrhea, gas, constipation and stomach pain. These side effects subsided with lower dosages or discontinuation of berberine.13
If you are considering taking berberine, speak to your healthcare professional to learn how it may be beneficial to you.