What does Berberine do for the body?

Medicinal plants are gaining renewed interest as more studies show that these have multiple uses and are safe to use. Some of these medicinal plants include those belonging to the Berberidaceae family, plants that contain the potent compound, Berberine. 

What is Berberine?

Berberine is a naturally occurring alkaloid compound in several plants, including barberry, tree turmeric, Oregon grape, coptis and goldenseal. Berberine is an interesting compound since it can be toxic parenterally but is highly effective in treating several conditions when taken orally. Common in the traditions of Native American healing, Ayurvedic medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine, Berberine has been used in these countries for millennia.

How does Berberine work?

Several animal model, preclinical and clinical studies have investigated the effects of Berberine on the body. When ingested, Berberine is absorbed in the small intestine, enters the bloodstream, and is transported to the cells in different organs and tissues. In the cell, it can bind to other proteins and enzymes, just as drugs do. For example, a study demonstrated that Berberine can attack cancer cells [1], and its anti-cancer effects are seen in at least eight key mechanisms.  

Berberine fostered anti-cancer activities by targeting critical proteins related to cell invasion and metastasis (spread), cell death, cell growth, cell cycle arrest, inflammatory factors, transcription factors, chemo-sensitivity, angiogenic and radio-sensitivity. Berberine has broad anti-cancer properties because it affects various cancer targets and pathways inside the cells.

The activities of Berberine and its ability to target multiple pathways and proteins inside the cells showed that it has the potential to treat several conditions. Further, it directly affects metabolism since it can activate an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) [2].

This enzyme improves the uptake of glucose and fatty acids and their oxidation when cells require energy. In addition, AMPK regulates mitochondrial function. When energy demands are increased, mitochondrial fusion maximises ATP production.  The ATP is the primary source of energy in the cell.

Berberine is effective in managing Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus

Type 2 diabetes remains an important cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. It has affected millions of people and caused the death of millions of people each year.

When individuals have type 2 diabetes, they experience high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia).  When not treated, type 2 diabetes can lead to complications such as developing diabetic foot or becoming blind.

Several studies [11, 12, 13, 14] demonstrate how Berberine lowers blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes [3]. One study compared the effectiveness of Berberine against metformin, the most used treatment for type 2 diabetes [4]. Results revealed that Berberine has similar effects as metformin in lowering blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes.

Results of the study demonstrated that Berberine lowers blood sugar levels by reducing the following:

  • Haemoglobin A1c (HbA1c)
  • Fasting blood glucose
  • Plasma triglycerides
  • Postprandial blood glucose

Berberine appears to lower blood glucose levels through multiple mechanisms [5, 6]:

  • Decrease production of glucose (gluconeogenesis) in the liver
  • Increase the breakdown of glucose in the body through a process called glycolysis
  • Decrease resistance to insulin, allowing sugar to be transported into the cell where they are transformed into energy-building blocks
  • Reduce the breakdown of glucose or carbohydrates in the gut
  • Improve the microbiota of the gut by increasing the number of bacteria that are beneficial to the body.

In a pilot study that examined the effectiveness of Berberine in lowering blood glucose levels, results indicated that intake of 500 mg of Berberine three times a day resulted in a 0.8% decrease in HbA1c levels. Prior to receiving treatment, the participants’ average HbAC1 level was 8.1% and reduced to 7.3% after treatment with Berberine.

Notably, fasting plasma insulin was also reduced by 28.1%.  Insulin resistance was reduced, which in turn lowered blood glucose levels. Since Berberine works well in lowering blood glucose levels and has the same efficacy as metformin, it is an ideal supplement for managing type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Berberine is effective in lowering cholesterol levels

Cardiovascular diseases remain among the top causes of death across the world. Several factors have been identified to cause heart disease. Healthcare practitioners measure blood cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), triglyceride and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) to determine an individual’s risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

A review and meta-analysis of 13 clinical trials [7] revealed that Berberine:

  • Increased HDL levels by 1.59 mg/dL in patients receiving treatment compared to the control group.
  • Decreased triglyceride levels by 0.93 mmol/L in the treatment group compared to the control group.
  • Decreased total cholesterol by 1.06 mmol/L in the treatment group compared to the control group.
  • Lowered LDL by 1.77 mmol/L in the treatment group compared to the control group.

Berberine can potentially improve hyperlipidaemia and address obesity by reducing total cholesterol, triglycerides, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Since Berberine can reduce blood glucose levels and manage obesity, this supplement can have protective effects against heart diseases in the long term. Besides reducing heart disease risk, current data from published studies have shown that Berberine can lead to other health benefits.

What are the other health benefits of Berberine?

Cancer: Berberine reduces the risk of colon cancer by increasing the population of good bacteria in the gut. These good bacteria improve the integrity of the gut. In addition, Berberine also degrades a compound called ß-catenin [8]. This compound is critical in the development of colon cancer.

Dementia:  Berberine increases the production of neurotransmitters, which are molecules that are secreted by a neuron and act in signalling another cell [9]. It is believed that increased production of neurotransmitters will delay the progression of dementia. 

Since Berberine reduces metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular disease, it can protect the brain against damage. Both metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular disease are risk factors for the impairment of brain functions [10].

Infections:  Several studies that examined the antimicrobial property of Berberine reported that it is effective against the following microorganisms: Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Vibrio, Klebsiella, Cryptococcus sp., Shigella, Pseudomonas, Proteus, and Clostridium.  In addition, Berberine does not affect the population of good bacteria in the gut while inhibiting the overgrowth of E. coli, the bacteria that cause diarrhoea.  

High blood pressure:  Hypertension is one of the significant risk factors for stroke. Berberine reduces the risk of stroke by lowering triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL levels in the blood. Lowering these compounds also reduce blood pressure levels.

Most of these studies synthesised and pooled findings of clinical studies, while others are animal studies. For example, multiple clinical trials support the effectiveness of Berberine in treating different types of infections.

However, the findings of these studies should be strengthened with more extensive clinical trials. While preclinical studies indicate the effectiveness of Berberine in reducing the risk of hypertension, dementia and cancer, there is still a need to consult a doctor when taking Berberine supplements.

Overall, sufficient studies provide evidence of Berberine’s effectiveness in managing type 2 diabetes mellitus and lowering cholesterol levels. Both conditions are essential risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. Hence, Berberine can potentially reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack.

When planning to take Berberine, always consult your doctor to ensure you take the correct dosage for your condition. This will ensure your safety while enjoying the health benefits of this powerful supplement. 

Consulting a doctor will also help you monitor the effects of the supplement in your body. Should you experience any side effects such as nausea and vomiting, consult your doctor immediately. 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6691338/
[2] https://diabetesjournals.org/diabetes/article/55/8/2256/12348/
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2410097/
[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711322001775
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7933196/
[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711322001775
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8107691/
[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22775417/
[9] https://benthamscience.com/article/69914
[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32005442/
[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3539561/
[12]  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10767672/
[13] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3549923/
[14] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18275156/

The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.