If you’ve heard about berberine, you might know that it’s a supplement that is sometimes touted as a way to help manage type 2 diabetes. But does it really work? And should you stop taking your diabetes medication and start taking berberine? Read on to learn more.
What is berberine?
Berberine is a compound that is found in some plants, such as goldenseal, goldthread, Oregon Grape, European barberry, and tree turmeric. It’s bitter-tasting and yellow in color. According to an article in the journal Biochemistry and Cell Biology in December 2014, berberine has been used in traditional Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern medicine for more than 400 years. In North America, berberine is found in goldenseal, which is grown commercially in the U.S., especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What is berberine used for?
Berberine is a supplement that is used for a number of conditions. The NIH’s MedlinePlus describes some of the uses of this supplement:
A gel containing berberine may reduce pain, redness, and the size of canker sores.
Taken orally, berberine may slightly lower blood sugar levels.
High cholesterol and blood fats
Berberine may lower total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, as well as triglycerides.
High blood pressure
Taking 0.9 grams of berberine by mouth daily along with the drug amlodipine lowers blood pressure more than taking amlodipine alone.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Taking berberine by mouth might lower blood sugars, blood lipids, and testosterone levels in women with PCOS.
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates berberine as being “possibly effective” for the above conditions.
Can berberine help treat type 2 diabetes?
In study published in the journal Metabolism in 2008, the authors state that, “The hypoglycemia effect of berberine was reported in 1988 when it was used to treat diarrhea in diabetic patients in China.” Since then, berberine has been used by physicians in China to treat diabetes. In this pilot study, 36 Chinese adults with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes were randomly assigned to take berberine or metformin for three months. The authors noted that the hypoglycemic effect of berberine was similar to that of metformin, and significantly decreased A1C, pre- and post-meal blood sugars, and triglycerides. They concluded that berberine could be a “candidate” in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, but stated that it needs to be tested in a much larger population and in other ethnic groups.
Most of the studies looking at berberine have been done in China and have used berberine from a Chinese herb called Coptis chinensis. Other sources of berberine have not been as widely studied. Furthermore, the dose and length of time taking berberine has varied from study to study.
Besides having a blood-sugar-lowering effect, berberine shows promise in lowering cholesterol and possibly blood pressure. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are common in people who have diabetes, and increase the risk of heart disease.
Is berberine safe to take?
Berberine has been shown to be safe in the majority of the clinical studies, and only a small number of patients in human studies have reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation with standard doses. High doses have resulted in headache, skin irritation, and fast heartbeat, but these were rare.
MedlinePlus states that berberine is “possibly safe” for most adults in doses up to 1.5 grams daily for six months; it’s also possibly safe to apply to the skin for most adults when used short term. However, berberine is considered to be “likely unsafe” for pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, and children.
One of the main safety issues with berberine is its possible interaction with some medications. Taking berberine with another diabetes medication may cause blood sugar levels to drop too low. In addition, berberine could interact with warfarin, a blood-thinning drug; cyclosporine, a drug used for those who have had an organ transplant; and sedatives.
While berberine does show promise as a new class of diabetes medication, keep in mind that larger-scale, longer-term clinical studies have not yet been done with this compound. Hopefully these will be done soon, as berberine could be another diabetes treatment option, especially before starting on insulin therapy.
Before you take berberine…
If you’re thinking that you might want to try berberine, be sure to consider the following first:
- Talk with your health care provider before taking this or any dietary supplement.
- Don’t stop taking your diabetes medication if you decide to take berberine. Discuss your medications with your provider, first.
- Berberine is available as an extract, a powder, and in capsule form. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) states that a typical berberine dose is 500 milligrams, three times a day. But again, ask your provider if it’s safe for you to take and if so, how much is best for you.
- If you and your provider believe that berberine is safe for you to try, purchase a supplement from a reputable company that has a third-party certification from NSF International, UL, or NSF (this should be stated on the label). Also, remember that dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Be sure to monitor your blood sugar levels if you take berberine (and especially if you are already taking medication to treat diabetes). If you have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or experience any other side effects, let your provider know right away.
- Don’t take berberine if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Finally, while berberine could possibly be a tool for you to help you manage diabetes, it’s not a replacement for a healthy lifestyle, which has much more evidence to support its benefits for diabetes management.
Want to learn more about diabetes and supplements? Read “Can Diabetics Take Turmeric Supplements?,” “Can People With Diabetes Use Apple Cider Vinegar?,” and “Herbs for Diabetes.”