Berberine is a compound found in many plants, including European barberry, phellodendron, Oregon grape, goldenseal, and goldthread. These plants have historically been used to treat everything from infection to sores.
The first traces of berberine being used medicinally are found more than 3000 years ago, when the barberry plant and its relatives were being cultivated in China and South Asia. The stems, leaves, and bark of the plant were used in a variety of ways.
Evidence also shows that berberine-containing plants were used in South America, the Middle East, and Europe to treat different conditions. Today, berberine is being investigated as a treatment for diabetes, high cholesterol, and even polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Potential Health Benefits
The possible health benefits of berberine stem from how it affects enzymes in the body. Berberine binds to enzymes and parts of your cells and changes how they work. It seems to do this to many individual enzymes, and even DNA and RNA.
Berberine is being studied to see if it may help with:
Taking berberine supplements regularly appears to lower total cholesterol, “bad” cholesterol, and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol. It works differently from today’s standard cholesterol medications, so it may help treat people who are resistant to other cholesterol-lowering drugs.
People with heart disease often have fatigue and irregular heartbeats. Studies show that taking berberine supplement combined with standard heart disease treatments reduces these symptoms. Berberine reduced the risk of death from heart disease without apparent side effects.
Blood Sugar Control
Berberine has also been shown to lower glucose levels in people with diabetes. Studies show that it helps your body respond better to insulin and prevents your liver from creating more glucose. As a result, people with diabetes may find berberine helps lower their blood sugar levels.
High blood pressure is associated with heart disease and strokes. Taking berberine may help lower your diastolic and systolic blood pressure (the bottom and top numbers of your blood pressure reading).
PCOS Symptom Relief
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, can cause problems such as high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and trouble losing weight. In some studies, berberine helped women with PCOS control their cholesterol, lower their waist-to-hip ratio, and increase their response to insulin.
While berberine is not a magic weight-loss pill, it may help people with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 lose weight. Two studies have shown that taking a berberine supplement over the course of three months results in significant weight loss. This may be due to how berberine helps control insulin and other hormones that regulate your fat cells.
Potential Health Risks
Berberine supplements may be helpful and safe for many people, but it can have occasional side effects. The potential side effects of berberine include:
Digestive complications. One study done with berberine found that it can lead to digestion problems—such as constipation, diarrhea, and flatulence—in some people. However, these symptoms typically clear up within four weeks.
Low blood pressure. Berberine’s blood pressure lowering effects are helpful if you have high blood pressure. For some people, this effect could cause blood pressure to drop too low, which can be dangerous.
As with any health supplement, it’s best to consult your doctor before you start taking berberine.