Taking dietary supplements is a low-risk way of boosting general health and wellbeing, and may be helpful in the management of some diseases. But while supplements vary in their effectiveness, their benefits are generally small in comparison to those of pharmaceutical drugs. This makes supplements like berberine all the more impressive. Though not particularly well known, berberine is one of the few compounds classed as a dietary supplement whose effects seem to be on par with those of some drugs. Specifically, berberine may have blood sugar-lowering effects similar to those of some drugs for type II diabetes. But how good is the evidence, really?
Berberine is a compound found naturally in some plants like European barberry and tree turmeric. It has a long history of use in some traditional medical practices.
Berberine works through several mechanisms that are still under investigation. In general, berberine targets molecules that regulate energy metabolism – that is to say, how the body manages its available energy in the form of nutrients like carbohydrates and fats. By activating molecules like AMPK, a ‘master regulator’ of energy metabolism, berberine essentially ‘tricks’ cells into responding as though energy is running low. This makes the body adopt several measures to boost and preserve available energy:
The potential benefits include reduced blood sugar, reduced cholesterol and triglycerides, and the possibility of benefits that come with these changes (reduced risk of age-related disease like diabetes and heart disease). Research suggests that both blood sugar control and the health of the mitochondria could play an important role in the ageing process, so berberine also has the potential to delay general ageing by affecting these factors.
So, now you know how berberine works, but does this actually lead to meaningful health benefits when taken by humans? Due to its effects on blood sugar and lipids, berberine has mainly been studied in people with type II diabetes, where it does seem to be beneficial. A meta-analysis of fourteen trials totalling 1068 patients found berberine to have similar benefits for blood sugar control when compared to antidiabetic drugs like metformin, and combining berberine with drugs was more beneficial than drugs alone. Another meta analysis of 18 studies (1788 total participants) found a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in adults with dyslipidemia. However, while these effect sizes are quite large, the quality of the evidence is variable and berberine remains much less well studied than pharmaceutical drugs like metformin.
Multiple studies, again of varying quality, also suggest that berberine may aid weight loss in people with metabolic disorders and reduce inflammation. However, for the most part, the benefits of berberine in healthy people have not been explored. Berberine may reduce blood sugar and lipids in people without diabetes, but whether this effect is large enough to produce a meaningful health benefit is currently unknown. Given the apparent importance of blood sugar in promoting ageing and age-related diseases, it’s perhaps not a bad bet, but ultimately the research isn’t there yet.
Berberine appears to be safe based on available research, but has some unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects at higher doses. It’s always best to consult with a doctor before taking a new dietary supplement, but this is especially true for berberine if you take any medication, as berberine can affect drug metabolism.
Berberine is a standout in the supplement world, as it seems to rival some pharmaceutical drugs in its ability to lower blood sugar and lipids. This has the potential to reduce the risk of age-related diseases and slow ageing in general, but evidence for this is currently lacking.
It is always best to consult with a doctor before taking any new drug, supplement, or making significant changes to your diet.
Title image by Yoksel Zok, Upslash
Berberine in the Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis https://doi.org/10.1155%2F2012%2F591654
The effect of berberine supplementation on obesity parameters, inflammation and liver function enzymes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnesp.2020.04.010
Therapeutic effect of berberine on metabolic diseases: Both pharmacological data and clinical evidence https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopha.2020.110984
Examine.com: Berberine https://examine.com/supplements/berberine/