Berberine is a herbally-derived supplement with a laundry list of health benefits. In fact, berberine is one of the few supplements that has actually been shown to work as well as prescription drugs in clinical trials[*].
Berberine can reduce inflammation, lower your blood sugar levels, improve your gut health, and help protect your heart. Studies suggest it has an array of other health benefits and minimal side effects.
In this article, you’ll learn all about berberine, its many beneficial effects, and how to use it safely.
Berberine is an isoquinoline plant alkaloid derived from the amino acid tyrosine.
It occurs naturally in a variety of plants, including:
- Berberis vulgaris (barberry)
- Berberis aristata (tree turmeric)
- Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape)
- Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal)
- Xanthorhiza simplicissima (yellowroot)
- Phellodendron amurense (Amur cork tree)
- Coptis chinensis (Chinese goldenthread)
- Tinospora cordifolia (heart-leaved moonseed)
- Argemone mexicana (prickly poppy)
- Eschscolzia californica (California poppy)
- Rhizoma coptidis (Huang Lian).
Therapeutic use of berberine by humans may date back to 3000 B.C.E or earlier[*]. The first recorded mention of berberine as a medicinal herbal compound was in the ancient Chinese book “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica”[*].
Berberine has a bitter taste and is found in many systems of traditional botanical medicine. Asian traditional medicine systems tout berberine for its properties of clearing damp-heat, quenching fire, and counteracting poison[*].
Scientists have called AMPK a “metabolic master switch”[*]. AMPK is found in cells of different organs throughout your body, including your heart, brain, kidneys, liver, fat cells, and muscle tissue[*].
By activating AMPK, berberine improves your body’s ability to metabolize glucose (sugar) for energy. That’s the main reason it’s helpful for people with type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
The AMPK pathway also reduces cell proliferation and cell growth, which helps explain berberine’s weight loss, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory effects[*].
Berberine also affects DNA transcription (turning genes on or off), receptor expression (controlling the behavior of cells), and the interaction of other molecules with cells in your body, including antioxidants[*][*][*][*].
Researchers initially assumed that oral absorption of berberine was poor because they found low blood levels of the compound. But newer evidence suggests that berberine is well-absorbed, but quickly metabolized by your body.
When you take berberine, it’s rapidly absorbed and then transformed in your liver — so quickly that it’s impossible to measure in your blood. Most of the effects of berberine in your body probably come from metabolites (byproducts) of berberine created after you take it[*].
#1: Lowers Blood Sugar and Reduces Insulin Resistance
Berberine can reduce glycated hemoglobin (hemoglobin A1c or hbA1c), decreasing fasting blood glucose levels, lowering postprandial glucose (blood sugar levels after a meal), and improving lipid metabolism (the ability to use fat for fuel)[*].
The effects of berberine on type 2 diabetes patients are comparable to those of metformin, a popular prescription diabetes drug[*].
A meta-analysis of 14 studies found that berberine is equally effective for improving insulin sensitivity and lowering blood sugar as the prescription diabetes drugs metformin, glipizide, and rosaglitazone[*].
How Berberine Lowers Insulin Resistance
- Lowers insulin resistance, which allows the blood sugar-lowering hormone insulin to work better[*]
- Increases insulin secretion[*]
- Boosts glycolysis (sugar metabolism), which helps your body utilize sugar properly[*]
- Decreases gluconeogenesis (sugar production in your liver)[*]
- Reduces absorption of sugar during digestion[*]
- Raises the number of beneficial gut bacteria[*]
In a three month long study of 116 people with diabetes, a gram per day of berberine lowered their fasting glucose by 20% to healthy normal levels, reduced their hbA1c by 12%, and improved their cholesterol and triglyceride levels[*].
Berberine pairs well with healthy lifestyle changes and also works in conjunction with other drugs for lowering blood sugar[*]. In a rat study, berberine even protected against metformin-associated lactic acidosis, a medical complication that can occur in people who take the drug metformin[*].
#2: Decreases Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
- Metabolic syndrome
- Increased risk of cancer
- Heart disease
- And more
In your body, a delicate balance exists between reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidants.
An unhealthy diet or certain health issues, like insulin resistance, can increase ROS formation, tipping the balance towards an inflammatory state.
But anti-inflammatory foods and plant compounds can help reduce inflammation in your body, protecting the cells of your brain, heart, and central nervous system.
Berberine exhibits anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in animal and human studies[*]. It is also proven to reduce inflammation in humans, in part through the AMPK pathway and by improving the metabolism of glucose (sugar)[*].
These pathways control inflammation levels in your body by affecting cell survival, DNA transcription, and the production of inflammatory signaling chemicals called cytokines.
#3: Possible Anti-Cancer Effects
While no human cancer trials have been conducted using berberine, one group of scientists researching berberine has called it “an epiphany against cancer”[*].
Inflammation, oxidative stress, and insulin resistance are all linked to an increased risk of cancer, so it’s not surprising that berberine may help prevent the growth of cancerous cells[*].
Along with reducing cancer risk factors, berberine has specific activity against cancer cells[*]. It’s cytotoxic to cancer cells, meaning it targets cancer cells for destruction without harming healthy cells[*][*].
In vitro (human cell line) studies and in vivo animal studies indicate that berberine could be effective for breast cancer, gastric carcinoma, colorectal cancer, malignant pleural mesothelioma, and pancreatic cancer[*][*][*][*][*][*].
It may also help with cancer cachexia, the wasting syndrome associated with cancer[*].
#4: Improves Heart Health
As with cancer, inflammation and insulin resistance increase the risk of heart attack and other serious cardiovascular problems[*][*]. Berberine may help protect your heart by reducing inflammation, as well as in cardiac tissues[*].
A study using both in vitro methods and human subjects concluded that berberine improved heart health and decreased injury to the heart by preventing cell death through the AMPK pathway[*]. It also reduced the participants’ blood levels of C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation[*].
In a separate study of 156 heart failure patients, 1.2 to 2 grams of berberine given daily for eight weeks improved their quality of life, strengthened their heart function, and reduced their risk of death[*]
Berberine reduces inflammation in the endothelium, the smooth cells lining your veins and arteries[*].
In vitro evidence suggests that berberine may also prevent heart arrhythmias from occurring[*].
#5: May Reduce Cholesterol
Berberine appears to be effective for treating dyslipidemia (the technical name for high levels of “bad” cholesterol)[*].
Two separate large reviews examining results from over 90 studies on human subjects found strong evidence for berberine’s ability to lower total cholesterol and other blood lipids, particularly LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides[*][*].
One way berberine improves cholesterol is by increasing the number of LDL receptors to control LDL cholesterol levels more effectively[*]. It also reduces the synthesis of lipids (cholesterol and fat molecules) in the liver[*].
#6: Lowers Blood Pressure
Some trials have shown that berberine is safe and effective for lowering blood pressure[*].
Berberine’s effects on blood pressure and blood flow are likely due to increased bioavailability of nitric oxide (a molecule that relaxes blood vessels) and inhibition of ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme)[*].
Because type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure often occur together, some scientists have suggested that berberine could be an ideal first-line therapy to help with these issues, especially in patients who have difficulty affording expensive prescription drugs[*].
#7: Improves Gut Health
In traditional medicine, berberine has been used to relieve diarrhea[*].
Recent studies of berberine confirm that it has significant effects on gastrointestinal function and health and is therapeutically promising for diarrhea, gastroenteritis, and inflammatory digestive issues[*].
Similar to other benefits of berberine, its gut health benefits appear in part to come from reducing inflammation. In rats, berberine restores gut health by reducing inflammation and also by regulating sugar metabolism[*].
In rats fed a diet designed to induce diabetes, berberine reversed adverse gut bacteria changes by increasing protective bacteria like Bifidobacterium and reducing levels of bacteria like E. coli[*].
#8: Dementia and Neurodegenerative Conditions
At this point, you won’t be surprised to learn that dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s have an inflammation component to their formation and progression[*].
Insulin resistance and chronic inflammation increase your odds of dementia and other neurological issues, which is why berberine can help improve your long-term risk factors for these conditions[*]. It also helps protect cells in your brain and nervous system from damage[*][*].
At this time no large human trials have been conducted to investigate berberine’s role in neuroprotection, but there are several promising animal studies[*].
A study of rats who were given toxic heavy metals to cause a condition similar to Alzheimer’s showed that berberine improved their cognitive behaviors and protected against memory impairment through its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects [*].
A study on the effects of berberine in rats with an Alzheimer’s-like condition found that it protected against memory impairment, reduced oxidative stress, and increased the rats’ brain antioxidant levels [*].
In diabetic rats with vascular dementia, berberine reduced inflammation and reversed impairments in learning and memory[*].
#9: Potential Depression Benefits
Preliminary evidence suggests that berberine could be a helpful supplement for people with depression[*].
There is a link between depression and inflammation: people with depression are more likely to have elevated levels of inflammation in their body, and inflammation and oxidative stress may increase the symptoms of depression[*].
By inhibiting inflammation and oxidative stress, berberine might reduce the likelihood or severity of depression.
Another way berberine may help in depression is by increasing production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline — similar to how many prescription antidepressants work[*].
Berberine can also reduce the weight gain side-effects of antipsychotic medications in rats, and potentially in humans[*].
#10: Weight Loss
Berberine may be effective as a supplement for weight loss. Berberine can enhance weight loss by regulating insulin, adiponectin, and leptin. It also may inhibit the growth of fat cells and stimulate the conversion of white adipose tissue to brown adipose tissue, which improves metabolism and fat-burning[*][*][*][*].
In one 12-week study of obese individuals, 500 milligrams of berberine taken three times daily caused an average of 5 pounds of weight loss and a 3.6% reduction in body fat[*].
In a separate 12-week study of obese men and women with metabolic syndrome, 300 milligrams of berberine taken three times per day reduced their body mass index (BMI) from 31.5 to 27.4 (from “obese” to “overweight”). The participants also lost belly fat and experienced other related health benefits[*].
#11: Helps Eradicate Infections
In vitro and in vivo animal and human studies show that berberine improve outcomes and help eradicate bacterial, viral, and fungal infections including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), H. pylori, Chlamydia, Hepatitis C, H1N1 influenza, and sepsis[*][*][*][*][*][*][*][*].
In most of the studies mentioned in this article, participants took between 900 and 1500 milligrams per day of berberine orally. If you want to try berberine, consider taking 500 milligrams two to three times daily, before meals, with a glass of water.
Berberine powder is extremely bitter tasting and can stain your hands and mouth yellow, so you are better off taking berberine capsules.
While berberine teas are available, there’s no added benefit from drinking berberine tea (unlike Gymnema Sylvestre), and it’s less convenient compared to pills.
Most trials of berberine show significant benefits after two to four months of usage, but a few studies have given berberine for up to a year with no negative consequences.
If you want to use berberine to improve your insulin sensitivity, reduce your cholesterol, or lower your blood pressure, be sure to give it time to work, and measure your results over time.
For fans of traditional Chinese medicine, Rhizoma coptidis (Huang Lian or coptis) is a berberine-containing herb with a long history of therapeutic use.
Try 2 to 10 grams of Huang Lian powder, or 15 to 60 milliliters of tincture, a couple of times per day if you want to imbibe berberine the traditional way.
Berberine is remarkably safe, especially considering it performs as well as some prescription drugs[*]. Its toxicity is so low that there are numerous studies where no participants reported any side effects[*][*].
The most common side effects of berberine are digestive issues. There have been reports of stomach pain, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, and flatulence[*][*]. In studies where these effects were reported, they were usually temporary[*].
Because berberine lowers blood glucose, it has the potential to cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
This effect is unlikely for most people, but if you have diabetes or take insulin or other drugs for blood sugar control, speak to your doctor before you take berberine, as it could enhance the hypoglycemic effects of prescription diabetes drugs.
Berberine can inhibit CYP3A4 and other enzymes in your liver that metabolize certain drugs, which may cause drug interactions. When these enzymes are inhibited, the effects of drugs like cyclosporin, lovastatin, clarithromycin, indinavir, sildenafil, and triazolam can be increased.
If you’re taking these or other drugs, ask your doctor whether you can take berberine safely.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, don’t take berberine. There’s no evidence that it’s safe for infants, so it’s best to play it safe.
The Takeaway: Should You Take Berberine?
Berberine is a powerful yet relatively safe supplement with beneficial effects on blood sugar control, inflammation, heart health, cholesterol, gut health, and perhaps even depression.
If you suffer from these issues, you should consider taking berberine.
If you’re currently healthy, berberine may be a good choice for protection against dementia, cardiovascular disease, and other problems associated with inflammation.
No one should blindly take a supplement without any reason, but if you’re looking for a highly effective health supplement with minimal risk, berberine should be at the top of your list, especially if you’re overweight or have insulin resistance.