Berberine is a plant alkaloid with a long history of medicinal use in Western, Ayurvedic, and Chinese herbal traditions. It can be found in the roots, rhizomes, and stem bark of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), goldthread or coptis (Coptis chinensis), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), and tree turmeric (Berberis aristata).
While it has long been used to treat bacterial diarrhea, intestinal parasite infections, and eye infections, berberine has become a hot research topic over the past few years, with more than 5,600 scientific studies published in the scientific literature highlighting its ability to lower blood sugar, promote weight loss, and improve heart health.
One of the foremost actions of berberine is to activate an enzyme inside cells called activated protein kinase (AMP or AMPK), which is sometimes referred to as a “metabolic master switch.” AMP is found in the cells of the heart, brain, muscle, kidney, and liver, and it plays a key role in regulating metabolism. It may also affect how genes function.
Blood Sugar Benefits
Diabetes, blood fats, hypertension, and obesity are a deadly combo that plagues our society. And berberine helps all of them. In fact, many studies show that berberine dramatically reduces blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes, with an effectiveness comparable to the popular diabetes drug metformin.
Unlike prescription drugs, berberine seems to act through multiple mechanisms. It cuts insulin resistance, increases glycolysis, drops sugar production in the liver, slows carbohydrate breakdown in the gut, and bumps up beneficial bacteria in the gut. In one study, 1 gram of berberine per day decreased fasting blood sugar by 20 percent—from diabetic to normal levels—and lowered hemoglobin A1c by 12 percent.
Research shows that berberine also lowers total and LDL cholesterol, raises HDL cholesterol, and reduces triglycerides. Plus, this plant chemical can promote weight loss. A dose of 1,500 mg per day over 12 weeks produced an average 5-pound reduction.
Berberine-containing herbs are generally anti-fungal and can be used to treat yeast infections. An Italian study established that berberine inhibited the ability, at least in a test tube, of infectious yeast to produce an enzyme it needed to colonize the skin and mucosal surfaces.
To treat a persistent yeast infection, try 8 grams of medicinal-quality goldenseal for at least one month to wipe out the tenacious infection.
Berberine may also hold the key to antibiotic resistance. Combined with antibiotics, berberine inactivates certain types of Staphylococcus aureus, bacteria responsible for staph infections that are frequently spread in hospitals. Chemists from the Department of Chemistry at Colorado State University in Fort Collins are excited about a “two-pronged attack” that barberry brings to fighting bacterial infection.
Plants that contain berberine have a long history of use as antibacterials. But berberine alone is not very active because bacteria have evolved mechanisms to pump it out of their systems (transmembrane proteins that eject the berberine). But scientists have found that 5’-Methoxyhydnocarpin (5’-MHC) isolated from the barberry plant, which has no antibacterial activity on its own, efficiently inhibits the pump. The level of bacterial cellular berberine accumulation was increased strongly in the presence of 5’-MHC, demonstrating that this plant compound effectively disabled the bacterial resistance mechanism against the antimicrobial berberine. Acting synergistically with berberine and a number of other antibiotics, 5’-MHC inactivates resistant strains of staph.
Berberine has also been shown scientifically to fight tooth infections, and a 2020 study found that adding berberine to standard therapy speeds up eradication and accelerates healing of stomach ulcers. And speaking of the digestive tract, berberine showed, in a 2020 study, that it protected cells in ulcerative colitis.
More Uses & Indications
In general, berberine-containing herbs are powerful inflammation fighters, and the consensus among experts is that inflammation is at the root of most chronic diseases. Recent research, for example, finds that berberine helps depression and other mood disorders, probably because of its anti-inflammatory effect in the brain.
Fatty liver is getting more and more attention as a major hidden disease. Berberine can reduce fat build-up in the liver, which likely would help protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
Related: Antibiotic Alternatives
Over the past few years, evidence has been accumulating that berberine might be valuable in the treatment of cancer. A study from The University School of Medicine, in Ube, Japan, indicates that coptis, an herb rich in berberine, might benefit esophageal cancer. A similar study in Taiwan revealed that berberine inhibited human colon tumor cells.
For general use, take 500 mg, 3 times per day, with food. Berberine has a half-life of just a few hours, so spread your dosage over the day to achieve steady blood levels. Berberine is very safe. The main side effects are digestive, including mild constipation or loose stools.
Did You Know…Despite the success of isolated berberine, one of the benefits of herbal remedies is synergy—the combined action of multiple chemical components in the plant—so consider using whole herbs that contain berberine.
Curcumin: The Ultimate Anti-Diabetes Spice?
If you’re looking to add another blood sugar-balancing herb to your regimen (in addition to berberine), consider curcumin. Best known as the active component in the curry spice turmeric, curcumin is a powerful ally in the fight against diabetes. Studies show that it can favorably impact the key facets of diabetes, including insulin resistance, chronically high blood sugar levels, and high cholesterol, while also helping to prevent complications resulting from diabetic nerve damage. This golden spice might also help prevent the initial development of diabetes: in a study that appeared in the journal Diabetes Care, 240 people with prediabetes were given either curcumin or a placebo daily for nine months. At the end of the study, more than 16 percent of those in the placebo group were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, while none of the participants taking the curcumin showed any signs of the disease.
There’s one problem: curcumin is notoriously hard for the body to absorb and utilize. Fortunately, there are a handful of branded ingredients that offer better bioavailability (and the science to back up that claim). Look for names such as Meriva, Curcumin C3 Complex, TheraCurmin, and CuraMed on labels.
Related: 10 Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
Add more turmeric and/or curry to you diet too. Turmeric’s earthy taste tempers the stronger spices in curry powder; it also enhances pastas and grains, soups, stews, and leafy green sautés. Sprinkle turmeric over open-faced cheese sandwiches before broiling, add a pinch to an omelet or tofu scramble, and increase the curcumin quotient in each teaspoon of curry powder by adding an extra 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric.