Interest in natural supplements has dramatically increased due to the fears that long-term use of medicines can lead to adverse effects or side effects and adverse events. These supplements are used to treat different diseases and maintain optimal health.
What is berberine?
One of the most used supplements today includes berberine. Berberine is a naturally occurring alkaloid compound found in plants belonging to the Berberidaceae family . Some plants where berberine is extracted include the European barberry, goldenseal, goldthread, Oregon grape, Turmeric tree and Phellodendron.
Berberine is a yellow-coloured compound that is bitter. Interestingly, this compound is only effective and safe when taken orally.
When applied externally or topically, it is toxic to the body . Currently, berberine has been shown to treat multiple conditions and infections. It has been used for thousands of years as part of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for different ailments.
What happens when you take berberine?
Once ingested, berberine is absorbed in the small intestine and enters your bloodstream. It is then carried to the different cells in the body, where it activates/deactivates or promotes the reaction of certain enzymes and proteins in the body.
Berberine has anti-cancer effects by targeting multiple cancer pathways inside the cell . It interferes with cell invasion and the spread or metastasis of cancer cells by targeting specific proteins.
It also arrests the cell growth of cancer cells, which leads to cell death. These are just a few examples of how berberine exerts its actions once inside the cell.
The actions of berberine are not only limited to cancer cells. It has been shown to influence the breakdown of lipids/fat cells, the formation of glucose and the storage of fats . Hence, it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, reduce blood glucose and potentially reduce weight and belly fat.
How long will berberine take effect?
The effects of berberine are not immediately felt if you take it for only a few days. Instead, taking it for more extended periods is necessary to see its effects. Some studies suggest that berberine’s effects can be seen when taking supplements for at least three months.
A study on the effects of berberine on obesity demonstrated that an intake of 500 mg of the supplement three times a day resulted in a noticeable weight reduction . Participants, on average, lost 5 pounds. Body fats were reduced by 3.6% before and after treatment with berberine.
The study findings showed that in just three months with berberine alone as the intervention, participants may reduce at least 5 pounds. Interestingly, the study revealed that blood lipid levels were reduced significantly.
Cholesterol levels of the participants, on average, reduced by 12.2%, which is significant. Triglycerides were also reduced by 23%. Even without substantial weight loss, lowering cholesterol and lipids would markedly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke .
Another study with very promising results examined the effectiveness of taking 300 mg of berberine three times a day for twelve weeks in reducing participants’ body mass index (BMI) . Results of the study revealed that berberine reduced the BMI of the treatment group from 31.5 to 27.4. A BMI of 30 or greater fall in the obese category, while a BMI of 25 to 29 is overweight.
The findings showed that in just three months, the supplement berberine has the potential to reduce BMI from obese to overweight significantly. This is crucial as participants did not engage in lifestyle intervention when taking berberine. This suggests that berberine has powerful effects even when taken alone.
Based on these two studies, intake of berberine for at least 12 weeks or three months is necessary to see positive results in weight, triglycerides, cholesterol, and BMI of individuals. However, caution should still be taken when interpreting findings as both studies [5,6] only recruited a very small sample size.
This means that there is a need to verify results in more extensive clinical trials. Further, there is also a need to conduct similar studies using comparison/placebo groups to determine changes in BMI, the extent of weight loss and lipid biomarkers in those treated with berberine.
The length of time before significant changes in weight loss and other metabolic changes may also depend on the berberine dosage. Current evidence from the literature suggests that an intake of 1200 to 1500 mg of the supplement is sufficient in effectively reducing weight, BMI and triglycerides and total cholesterol.
Prolonging intake to more than three weeks to six months or a year might inform individuals if the drug is safe to take. Further, it is unclear if the effects can be sustained if a patient stops taking the medication at three months.
Can berberine be taken for more than three months without side effects?
To date, there are still limited studies examining the safety and efficacy of berberine when taken for more than three months. It is also unclear if intake for long periods is safe in the long term and whether this would lead to more significant results in the patient’s BMI and other biomarkers for obesity.
Meanwhile, the effects of berberine are not only limited to obesity, but efficacy is seen in treating cancer cells in animal models. There are still limited studies examining the effectiveness of berberine in treating different types of cancer.
However, the current findings from animal model studies suggest that it can potentially cure colon cancer . The effects are seen after treating the animals for two weeks.
The evidence on whether berberine is also effective in humans in treating colon cancer has yet to be seen. It is still impossible to exactly determine how many weeks or months a patient responds to berberine treatment for cancer. Despite the lack of evidence, animal studies’ initial results remain promising and worth exploring in future studies.
What are berberine’s common side effects?
Berberine is generally safe and well-tolerated and does not cause severe kidney or liver injuries when taken for at least three months. However, some patients may experience nausea and vomiting, which can be corrected when you stop taking the supplement.
Doses of even 2700 mg/day are still well tolerated and do not lead to adverse events. This suggests that berberine supplements are safe to take.
Despite the drug’s safety, animal studies have shown that very high doses of more than 50-100 mg/kg per day for ten days in dogs and cats lead to poisoning and death. These doses are too high. In humans, 50-100 mg/kg day of berberine translates to 3500-7000 mg/day for a 70kg man. Currently, studies only use 1200-1500 mg/day of berberine to effect improvements in health outcomes [5,6].
When taking berberine supplements, always consult your doctor to ensure you take the correct dosage. Berberine may be recommended for at least three months to improve overall health.
However, your doctor may recommend taking the supplement for more extended periods. You must always report any side effects or adverse events to ensure safety.
Always inform your doctor if you are taking other over-the-counter drugs and medications since berberine may interact with the medications you are currently taking. Concurrent use of berberine may affect the effectiveness of the medicines that you are taking.