A diet packed with healthy, whole foods puts your body in the express lane to wellness. But for a lot of us, adding a few supportive supplements to the mix can help boost the power of all the good things we’re already doing, fill in nutritional gaps and protect against the occasional dietary slip-up. While needs vary somewhat from person to person, I do have a few favorites and topping the list is the slightly under-the-radar supplement called berberine. What can it do for you? Plenty! Here’s a quick 411 on this helpful health multi-tasker:
What is Berberine?
For thousands of years, berberine, a bioactive compound found in select plants, has been used to enhance health throughout Asia, especially in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine. Shrubs from the berberis genus – namely goldenseal, Oregon grape, barberry, amur corktree, Chinese goldthread and corktree plants – are among the most common sources. Extracted from the roots, stems, leaves and bark of these berberis plants, the harvested berberine, bright yellow in color, is still commonly used in India and elsewhere as a natural fabric dye, in addition to its medicinal applications.
What’s berberine good for?
In traditional medicines, berberis species have been used to treat an enormous range of conditions, including eye, mouth and ear infections; skin irritations; wound healing; fever; microbial pathogens; digestive and respiratory diseases to name a few. Today, berberine gets high marks for its natural pharmacological properties, including its health-supportive effects on the immune system, metabolism, heart and gut health, blood and kidneys as well as for its antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory powers.
Why does berberine matter now?
Berberine matters because thousands of years of use in traditional medicine have shown it to be a medicinal multi-tasker, kind of a good-for-what-ails-you compound and, very possibly, an effective natural alternative to certain pharmaceuticals. It’s so useful for the treatment of so many conditions, it just makes sense to explore using berberine as a simple way to keep health on track without automatically defaulting to Big Pharma options.
For example, berberine behaves similarly to the common diabetes drug metformin. Like metformin, berberine lowers blood sugar and may have anti-aging benefits. Though berberine’s benefits are more subtle, there are few if any concerning side effects, so it’s a promising option for those with blood sugar issues. However, if you are currently taking metformin, discuss berberine with your doctor first, as taking the herbal can interact with the drug to prevent blood sugar from dropping dangerously low.
How does berberine work?
While berberine offers significant effects across a wide range of the body’s systems – including positive antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the gut microbiome – among its most exciting properties is its ability to stimulate activity inside the cells, in particular, the enzyme adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase or ‘AMPK.’ What makes AMPK so important is that it regulates metabolism, especially how energy is produced and used. When AMPK activity is stimulated, it boosts fat-burning, glucose uptake and energy production and may provide disease-prevention benefits similar to those that diet, exercise and healthy weight management yield. Berberine is one of the few compounds that can flip that all-important AMPK switch – so, it’s a great one to be able to tap into naturally.
What is berberine good for?
Berberine’s list of upsides is quite impressive. It’s been the focus of numerous studies, the majority of which show its therapeutic potential for a range of common health problems and diseases. Among the possible benefits:
- Tames the inflammatory response – which is key in the prevention of numerous health conditions, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes and certain cancers.
- Supports cardiac health – by protecting against heart failure, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, insulin resistance and arrhythmias.
- Promotes a healthy weight and weight loss – with its positive effect on gut microbiota, as well as on the regulation of genes that regulate the absorption of cholesterol, making it a potential game changer in obesity prevention and treatment.
- Supports a healthy gut – potentially, by strengthening the beneficial bacteria and reducing the harmful ones in the gut microbiome — helping the body fight the inflammation that gives rise to so many diseases and conditions. It’s also thought to be helpful as a potential treatment for candida, S.I.B.O., IBS and ulcerative colitis as well as many inflammatory bowel conditions.
- Supports a healthy blood sugar level – with effects comparable to prescription meds (making it extra important to check with your doc first!).
- Supports tumor suppression — believed to have inhibitory effects on tumor growth, due to its ability to act inside individual cells, providing potential cancer-killing effects.
- Potential cancer treatment — in a 2020 study, researchers determined that berberine (and its derivatives) has the potential to be used in cancer therapy drugs, offering improved clinical efficacy and safety for treatment of ovarian, cervical, lung, prostate, liver and colorectal cancers.
- Fights infections – helping to combat many types of pathogens, including bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal organisms. For those who suffer from frequent bouts of cystitis and UTIs, berberine may help prevent painful symptoms and bladder inflammation.
- Supports mental health – some studies show berberine to be effective in the treatment of mood disorders, in part by helping to modulate neurotransmitters and their receptor systems within the central nervous system.
- Slows neurological decline – berberine has shown promise as a potential treatment for slowing the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia by reducing oxidative stress, inflammation and cell death.
Should I try berberine?
Generally speaking, yes. But while berberine supplements are very well-tolerated by most people, they may not be suitable for everyone. It’s not recommended for children, those who are who are pregnant or nursing, or people with certain plant allergies. It can interact with common blood pressure and diabetes drugs – causing potentially dangerous drops in blood sugar and blood pressure – so it’s essential to first clear berberine use with your doc to prevent problems. If your doc gives you the OK, for most people, a 500 mg dose taken 3 times a day should suffice. A small percentage of people may experience mild digestive upset, nausea, constipation or diarrhea, so if you fall into that camp, reduce your dose or just discontinue if the reactions is too severe.
What’s the best berberine to buy?
Got your doc’s OK? Good. Then, it’s time to go shopping. When in the market for a berberine supplement, always look for the organic, non-GMO and Fair Trade seals, and check the ingredients list, as some berberine may be blended with other herbals that you may or may not want. Next, look for third-party certification, for example from regulatory groups like these recommended by Consumer Reports: non-profits NSF International and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP); or for-profits like ConsumerLab.com or UL.
My take: When used strategically, in tandem with a clean and healthy plant-rich, low sugar diet, berberine may be an important ally in slowing down the development of lifestyle-related diseases.