Reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Mercola.
Berberine has long been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines to help fight off bacteria, viruses and other harmful microorganisms. Its extracts and decoctions were even consumed to help relieve gastrointestinal problems, such as bacterial diarrhea, intestinal parasites and ocular trachoma infections.1
However, recent studies show that there’s actually more to berberine than its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, its potential health benefits make it one of the most powerful supplements today.
What Is Berberine?
Berberine is a bitter-tasting, yellow-colored alkaloid compound that can be extracted from several medicinal herbs and plants.2
Initially known for its potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, berberine also plays an essential role on numerous physiological processes in the body, since it’s one of the few chemicals that can activate adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK).
To give you a background, AMPK, which is also known as the “metabolic master switch,” is an enzyme that controls how energy is produced in your body and how it’s used by the cells. By activating this enzyme, berberine helps regulate the biological activities that normalize lipid, glucose and energy imbalances.
The positive effects of berberine to your overall health are relatively similar to the effects of proper diet, exercise and weight loss. While I don’t recommend replacing healthy lifestyle and dietary habits with this supplement, its potential health benefits can make it a worthy addition to your routine.
There are different types of berberine supplements in the market today, with the most common one being berberine hydrochloride (HCL). Its other formulations include berberine sulfate, berberine citrate and berberine phosphate.3
Your body can absorb and use berberine faster than it can be measured by a blood test. It can also form complexes with other compounds, further increasing its absorption rate and fat solubility.4
Natural Sources of Berberine
As mentioned above, berberine is a naturally occurring compound found in several medicinal plants and herbs. It’s usually extracted from the roots, barks, leaves and rhizomes of any of the following plants:5,6,7
- Oregon grape
- European barberry
- Chinese goldthread
- Phellodendron (also known as cork tree)
- Tree turmeric
- Tinospora cordifolia (also known as Guduchi)
- Prickly poppy
- Californian poppy
- Yerba mansa
Berberine Provides a Wide Range of Health Benefits
The ability to activate the AMPK is, perhaps, the most valuable benefit of berberine, since this leads to better metabolism and mitochondrial health, which in turn helps support other physiological processes in the body.8 Along with its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, berberine may provide the following health benefits:
- Helps control Type 2 diabetes: Berberine may be useful for the management of Type 2 diabetes, as it helps improve insulin sensitivity, reduce the production of glucose in the liver, promote healthy lipid metabolism and stimulate the absorption of glucose in the cells.
- Aids in weight loss: Studies show that berberine may help reduce body weight by improving the function of fat-regulating hormones like insulin and leptin.9 It also helps inhibit the growth of fat cells and improve the activity of brown fat, which converts fats into energy.
- Helps improve heart health: Berberine may help improve heart health by reducing your risk for diabetes and obesity, which are some of the biggest risk factors for heart disease.
- Helps ease depression and anxiety: Studies have shown that berberine may help alleviate depression and anxiety, since it increases the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain.10,11
- Aids in the management of cancer: Studies show that berberine may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer from worsening by inhibiting tumor growth and cell proliferation.12,13
- Helps strengthen the immune system: Berberine may help improve immune function by maintaining healthy gut flora, providing antioxidant properties and activating white blood cells, which are responsible for preventing infections.14
- Helps control non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): Research suggests that berberine may be a useful supplement for people with NAFLD, as it helps decrease fat buildup in the liver and regulate hepatic lipid metabolism.15
Some of the other uses for berberine include burns, glaucoma, hepatitis, menopausal symptoms, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and osteoporosis, among others. However, further studies are still needed to confirm its benefits for these conditions.16
Studies Support the Benefits of Berberine for Metabolic Syndrome, Inflammation and Cancer
According to the Natural Medicine Journal, berberine may be considered for three general conditions: metabolic syndrome, inflammation and cancer. The positive effects of berberine for these conditions are also backed by a number of scientific studies, most of which were conducted in recent years.17
For instance, a pilot study done in 2008 compared the efficiency and safety of berberine for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes to that of metformin, a common diabetes drug. Results show that berberine works just as well as metformin when it comes to controlling blood sugar levels. What makes it even better is that it does not cause any life-threatening side effects unlike most diabetic medications.18
Another study published in the Journal of Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders also confirms the positive effects of berberine on metabolic syndrome and insulin sensitivity. According to this study, taking 500 milligrams of berberine daily for a span of three months helped lower systolic blood pressure levels, decrease waistline in females and increase insulin sensitivity.19
Meanwhile, the anti-inflammatory properties of berberine have also been evaluated in several studies. A study published in the Journal of Rhinology states that berberine may help reduce inflammation caused by allergic rhinitis.20 It may also help treat gastrointestinal inflammatory diseases, according to another research published in the American Journal of Physiology.21
The cancer-fighting properties of berberine are also supported by scientific evidence. For example, a study conducted in 2009 found that berberine may help control cancer, as it helps stop the growth of tumor and the spread of cancer cells.22
Finding the Ideal Berberine Dosage for Your Needs
Just because berberine comes from natural sources it doesn’t mean that it’s OK to take in any amount. The ideal dosage for this supplement is around 900 to 1,500 milligrams. Since it has a short half-life, it’s necessary to divide its daily dosage into three separate doses, taken before meals, to maintain stable blood levels.
Make sure that you still consult your physician, though, since the dosage may also depend on your age and health condition. Be careful not to overdose on this supplement, as it may cause undesirable side effects.23
Possible Side Effects That You May Experience When Taking Berberine
Berberine has a remarkable safety profile, and according to a study published in the American Journal of Physiology, it does not exhibit toxicity in the cells.24 Keep in mind, though, that it may still cause a few side effects if taken incorrectly. Some of the side effects that are commonly associated with this supplement include:25
- Stomach pain
Berberine is possibly unsafe for pregnant and breastfeeding women, since it can be transferred to the infant through breastmilk or by crossing the placenta. Newborn infants who were exposed to berberine are reported to develop kernicterus, a rare type of brain damage.
Berberine may also inhibit the body’s ability to break down other medications, so make sure that you consult your doctor before taking other drugs with this supplement.26
Other Ways to Optimize Your Metabolism and Mitochondrial Health
Taking berberine is not enough to improve your overall health — you need to put in some effort too. In order to maximize the positive effects of this supplement, it’s best to pair it with these healthy lifestyle and dietary habits:
• Follow a ketogenic diet: The ketogenic diet is centered on eating high-fat, low-carb and moderate-protein meals to reach the state of nutritional ketosis, wherein your body burns fat for fuel instead of glucose.
One of the many health benefits of this dietary approach is improved metabolic and mitochondrial function, since it decreases the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and secondary free radicals in your body, which are the primary causes of damaged cells and mitochondrial DNA.
• Exercise regularly: Regular exercise not only promotes the production of new mitochondria, but it also stimulates mitophagy, which is the process of removing damaged mitochondria from the cells to maintain proper cellular function.
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• Boost your nutrient levels: Aside from berberine, there are other nutrients that may help support proper mitochondrial function, including ubiquinol, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins. You can increase the levels of these nutrients in your body by eating nutritious foods or taking supplements.
• Avoid eating before bedtime: Eating several hours before bedtime causes your body to produce higher amounts of free radicals, which may damage your mitochondrial DNA, accelerate aging and cause chronic diseases.
• Avoid environmental toxins: The best way to reduce your exposure to toxins is by avoiding artificial products and non-organic foods, as they contain chemicals that may harm your health. As much as possible, eat only organic produce and free-range animal products. You should also use natural cleaning products in your house and avoid materials that are made from plastic.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Berberine
Q: What does berberine do?
A: Berberine is one of the few compounds that can activate AMPK, therefore improving your metabolic and mitochondrial function. This leads to a cascade of health benefits, such as improved insulin sensitivity, better lipid metabolism and lower cholesterol levels. Because of these, studies suggest that berberine may be used for managing diabetes, preventing heart disease and reducing body weight.
Berberine is also good for alleviating gastrointestinal issues, as it helps fight off bacteria, protozoa and fungi with its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. You can even use it topically on wounds to help prevent infections.
Q: Where can I buy berberine?
A: You can buy berberine from drugstores or health shops. However, research shows that some berberine supplements in the market are not as effective as they claim, so make sure that you get one from a trusted organic brand to guarantee its efficiency.27
Q: What is berberine HCL?
A: Berberine HCL is the most common formulation of berberine supplement. Some of the other forms include berberine citrate, berberine sulfate and berberine phosphate.28
Q: How much berberine should I take?
A: The ideal dosage for berberine is around 900 to 1,500 milligrams per day. This dosage is usually divided into three doses, which are taken before meals. Keep in mind, though, that it’s still best to consult your physician regarding the specific dosage of berberine for your needs, since taking incorrect amounts of this supplement may cause side effects.29
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