I have gotten a ton of questions recently on a compound called berberine. Is it safe and/or beneficial?
So, let’s talk about berberine, a natural compound that has been gaining a lot of attention lately. This molecule is found in a variety of different plants that are used in herbal medicine, including goldenseal, Oregon grape (which, despite the name, is unrelated to the grapes we eat or make into wine), and an herb known as Chinese goldthread.
There are a lot of different health benefits popularly attributed to berberine, including cardiovascular, neuroprotective, and immune-boosting properties. Most of these claims have only limited or preliminary evidence to support them.
But the thing that’s getting most of the attention right now is berberine’s potential to modulate blood sugar—lowering fasting blood glucose levels, as well as blood sugar spikes following meals. Obviously, this is of interest to people who may have been diagnosed with high blood sugar or prediabetes. It’s even sometimes positioned as a natural alternative to prescription diabetes medications such as metformin.
Even those who have normal blood sugar responses might wonder whether a supplement like this could be helpful, perhaps reducing the risk of future problems. With all we hear these days about the dangers of high blood sugar and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, that might make sense. But there’s no research to suggest that we get any benefit or risk reduction from lowering normal or healthy blood sugar levels. (In fact, excessively low blood sugar levels, known as hypoglycemia, can be problematic.)
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What research we have on berberine is primarily in the context of managing elevated blood sugar levels. And the results have been promising.
A 2022 systemic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials on berberine found that it was comparable to the diabetes medication metformin in reducing fasting glucose and Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. (HbA1c is a key marker for long-term blood sugar control.)
Berberine has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, and researchers in China have been at the forefront of studying its potential benefits for diabetes management. So, most of the research on berberine has been conducted in Chinese populations. And we need to be cautious about generalizing those findings to other populations.
Is berberine safe?
In terms of safety. berberine generally appears to be pretty safe when used appropriately, although some individuals may experience gastrointestinal side effects, such as diarrhea or constipation. But in my opinion, you’d really need to be working with a health professional to know what an appropriate dose would be for your situation.
Berberine has the potential to interact with certain medications, particularly those metabolized by the liver. It can also amplify the effects of other anti-diabetic medications. So, if you’re taking statins, blood thinners, or diabetes medications, it’s really important to discuss the use of berberine with your healthcare professional.
Also, because dietary supplements are more loosely regulated and controlled than prescription medications, you need to be aware of the quality of the product you choose. Look for a berberine supplement that has been independently tested for purity and potency. Select a reputable brand that follows good manufacturing practices.
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While berberine shows some promising results in research, it doesn’t take the place of a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular exercise. More importantly, it should never be used in place of or in combination with other antidiabetic medications, except under the advice and supervision of a qualified healthcare professional. We don’t want to under-correct OR over-correct blood sugar issues.