Perusing the supplements aisles can be overwhelming and confusing. Not only is an industry not closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (which means you have to do your homework and research brands before you buy), the shelves are stocked with endless options—including many you’ve likely never even heard of.
Berberine definitely can fall into that bucket. While the compound has been part of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for years, it isn’t commonly talked about here in the States. But there’s good reason why berberine deserves some consideration. The benefits of berberine include being good for your gut and helping to control sugar cravings—to name just a couple.
Technically, berberine is a bioactive compound extracted from several different plants, a group of shrubs called berberis native to Southern Europe, Western Asia, and Northwest Africa. In Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, berberine has been used as an antimicrobial, to reduce inflammation, and to help with digestive problems, among other uses. Here, integrative dietitian Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN explains how berberine can help in these ways, as well as highlights its other many benefits.
What are the benefits of berberine?
1. It might be beneficial for gut health
“One way that berberine works is that it [may help] the body achieve a more healthier mix of gut flora,” Foroutan says. While more human studies need to be conducted to show this connection, several scientific studies, including this one published in the journal Drug Metabolism and Disposition, have shown this in mice. Specifically, the study found that when bacteria from mice’s lower intestine was exposed to berberine,, it “not only altered bacterial physiology but also changed bacterial community composition and function.”
Again, there mostly seem to be mouse or in vitro (aka studies not on living subjects) studies to support this benefit, so take the claims with a grain of salt. But Foroutan says berberine’s potential for improving gut health is the number one reason it’s used by health practitioners. “It’s a natural antimicrobial, meaning it helps to keep gut microbes in balance,” she says. Having balanced and healthy gut flora can influence so many other aspects about health, she adds, like overall inflammation, mood, immune function, and chronic disease risk.
2. It may help keep blood sugar levels steady
There is also some evidence to suggest that berberine can help keep blood sugar levels in check. “Berberine activates an enzyme called adenosine monophosphate kinase (AMPK), which is an insulin-dependent process. This triggers a series of enzymes that helps the body transport glucose from the blood into muscles and other cells, effectively lowering blood sugar,” Foroutan explains. However, more robust clinical trials need to performed before this benefit is conclusive.
3. It’s good for your heart
Since the enzyme berberine activates helps with blood flow, Foroutan says this means it could also be good for cardiovascular health. “Recent research has shown that berberine may protect against heart failure, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, arrhythmias, and platelet aggregation,” Foroutan says. “It’s been found to lower cholesterol in people with high cholesterol, including ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides,” she adds. Again, much of the research on this subject was performed on animals, meaning that it’s not quite clear whether those benefits translate to humans.
4. Berberine supports liver function
Another benefit to berberine, according to Foroutan, is that it’s good for liver health. “Berberine has been found to improve liver enzymes in people with the common liver disease called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFL),” she says. This is because it may help the liver get rid of stored fat, which prevents it from functioning properly. In one randomized controlled trial published in the journal PLOS One, consuming berberine daily for 16 weeks was associated with reducing fat in the liver by as much as 53 percent.
5. Consuming berberine could improve your mood
Some scientific evidence shows a connection between consuming berberine and lowering depression. According to a scientific paper published in the European Journal of Pharmacology, the consumption of berberine by mice was associated with increased amounts of serotonin and dopamine, the “feel good” chemicals in the brain. While this is a promising connection, more human studies need to be done to establish a strong connection.
How to buy and consume berberine
The most common way berberine is consumed is in supplement form, either by taking it in small amounts at each meal or in a larger dose at once. Since supplements are not regulated by the FDA, it’s important to research the brand you’re considering buying before you make your purchase. Some important factors to keep in mind: be on the lookout for fillers listed in the ingredients, see if the brand tests the supplement for contaminants and to ensure purity, and see if the brand has done any scientific studies to prove that their product works.
Before taking any supplements, including berberine, it’s smart to check with your doctor to make sure that it’s safe for your specific health needs—especially if you have any existing health conditions or concerns. It also isn’t recommended that anyone pregnant, nursing, or a child consume berberine.
Not into swallowing pills? You can also find berberine as a loose powder, which you can add right into your smoothie. The taste of these powders is slightly sweet since they are sourced from the berries the berberis shrubs produce. (Barberries and goldenseal are two common ones.) If you are opting for a powder, however, it’s important to research it just as you would a supplement to ensure you’re getting a product that is safe and truly beneficial.
Though it can be harder to find, you can also get berberine as a tea. Again, barberry and goldenseal are going to be the most common forms—just like the powders.
Risks and potential side effects
Foroutan says there are some potential risks and side effects for consuming berberine. “Because it’s an antimicrobial, many people report digestive symptoms when they first start using it,” she says. “This is because berberine kills off pathogenic bacteria and yeasts in the digestive tract.” She says these side effects likely only last the first week or two of taking berberine. After that, the body tends to adjust and the symptoms subside. (If they do not, see a doctor ASAP.)
“Berberine is very versatile!” Foroutan says. While no supplement is a magic bullet, this one could play a supporting role in your wellness routine and benefit the body in many ways.