Berberine is a compound found in plants such as barberry, tree turmeric, Oregon grape, goldenseal, yellowroot and Chinese goldthread, among others. The ancient Chinese were the first to discover the medicinal values of berberine more than 5000 years ago. Berberine is antibiotic and has a potential use against MRSA infections. Many studies have been done to find the efficacy of berberine in treating arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), high lipid levels in blood and cancer. Berberine for diabetes is one among them.
What Does Research say About Berberine?
A 2008 study found that berberine was able to lower blood glucose as well as blood lipid levels. The surprising finding was that taking berberine 500 mg 2-3 times daily for a couple of months was as effective in controlling blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes patients as the old “warhorse” metformin. Another study found it as effective as rosiglitazone. Till date, more than 4300 studies have been done on berberine. Out of these, close to 250 have tried to understand the connection between berberine and diabetes.
Berberine was also found to help lower cholesterol levels in people with high cholesterol. It is also effective in,
- Reducing symptoms of congestive heart failure (CHF) as well as lowering death rate in people with CHF
- Stomach ulcers
- Liver disease
- Menopausal symptoms
- Metabolic syndrome
- Radiation injury
- Low blood platelet counts, and
- Trachoma, an eye disease (a common cause of blindness in developing countries)
Action of Berberine
Berberine stimulates liver cells, muscle cells and fat cells to take up glucose through a process that does not depend upon insulin. This function seems to be similar to that of metformin. The activity of berberine increases dramatically, when insulin is present.
Berberine also increases insulin sensitivity and regulates the function of mitochondria, the “powerhouses” of cells (where energy metabolism occurs). Thus, berberine prevents fatty liver, reduces blood glucose and decreases blood lipids.
Berberine also acts on α-glucosidase, an intestinal enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars. This action leads to the intestines absorbing lesser amounts of carbohydrates from the diet, thus leading to low blood sugar levels after meals.
Berberine also aids fat reduction. It can reduce abdominal fat accumulation and significantly alter waist/hip ratio. It seems to perform this activity by decreasing the activity of certain genes that function to form and store more fats.
Berberine increases the activities of the body’s major antioxidants thus helping reduce oxidative stress and the associated long term health complications.
Natural Sources of Berberine
Berberine is found in plants like,
- Berberis vulgaris (Barberry)
- Berberis aristata (tree turmeric)
- Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape)
- Hydrastis canandensis (goldenseal)
- Xanthorhiza simplicissima (yellowroot)
- Phellodendron amurense (Amur cork tree)
- Coptis chinensis (Chinese goldthread)
- Tinospora cordifolia
- Argemone mexicana (prickly poppy), and
- Eschscholzia californica (Californian poppy)
We cannot get berberine from our diets. Hence we have to take it as a supplement (tablet, liquid drops or powder form).
What Dosage Would Help?
The appropriate dosage depends upon the patient’s age, health, and other conditions. It will also depend upon the condition for which berberine is being used. The following dosages were found to be effective:
- Blood sugar reduction – 500 mg three times a day,
- Lipid lowering activity – 0.5 g twice a day,
- Heart-protective activity – 1.2 to 2 g per day.
Higher dosages may lead to berberine toxicity.
Is Berberine Safe?
Berberine is safe for most adults to be taken orally or to be applied on the skin. It should never be given to newborns as it can cause accumulation of bilirubin that can cause jaundice and (rarely) kernicterus, a type of brain damage due to jaundice.
Berberine is able to cross the placenta and can also be transferred through breast milk. Hence it might cause harm to the fetus. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take berberine for these reasons.
It should be used with caution by diabetics who are already on blood glucose lowering medication as a combined effect of those medications and berberine can cause severe hypoglycemia.
It should also be used with care by people with low blood pressure as berberine might lower blood pressure.
What Are the Side Effects of Berberine?
Berberine is generally safe to be taken orally. It shows minor side effects like diarrhea and nausea. No major side effects apart from these, both long term and short term, have been reported.
The Final Verdict on Berberine
Berberine is one of those few compounds that seem to have a wide ranging effect on human metabolism. Its positive effects on:
- Digestion and absorption of carbohydrates
- Blood glucose levels
- Lipid levels
- Fat metabolism and accumulation
- Metabolic syndrome and
are well established.
It has been used for at least five centuries as a medicine and is generally regarded as safe for adult consumption. It also has negligible side effects. It can be safely incorporated into the anti-diabetic regimen of type 2 diabetic patients, along with a holistic diet and exercise regimen. As a supplement, it can help diabetics control their blood sugar levels and also help to protect vital organs and metabolic processes. This reduces the stress of side effects and future health complications.