You’ve finally got your supplement routine nailed down, but then TikTok’s “For You” page introduces you to a supplement that’s garnered a lot of hype: berberine. Referred to some as “nature’s Ozempic,” TikTokers are touting the wonder pill for its weight loss and metabolism-boosting benefits. But does it have any science-backed validity, or is it another damaging mask for disordered behaviors around weight? And what exactly is berberine anyway? Does it have negative side effects? We had a lot of questions, so I asked Mark J. Tager, MD, a pioneer in integrative medicine and author of Feed Your Skin Right: Your Personalized Nutrition Plan for Radiant Beauty, to explain social media’s favorite supplement and identify whether or not it lives up to the hype.
What is Berberine?
“Berberine is a yellow-colored botanical found in several plants, including barberry, goldenseal, and Oregon grape, and has been used for centuries in traditional medicine, particularly in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine,” Dr. Tager explained. Studies have shown that berberine has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and has been used to help manage gastrointestinal issues, hypertension, and insulin resistance, according to the New York Times. Berberine cannot be easily consumed from food sources, not only because of its bitter taste, but because the plants it’s derived from are uncommon in the US, so berberine is most commonly found and taken in supplement form. Although berberine comes from plants, don’t let its natural quality fool you—the botanical compound is powerful and can have negative side effects (more to come on that).
What are the benefits of Berberine?
It can regulate blood sugar
Because berberine targets a protein common in glucose (AKA blood sugar) generation and insulin resistance (when cells in your muscles, fat, and liver don’t respond well to insulin, a hormone your pancreas makes that’s essential for life and regulating blood glucose levels), it can help regulate how the body uses blood sugar. And healthy blood sugar is important for hormonal health, energy, and weight management. “Berberine enhances glucose uptake by cells and also reduces the production of glucose in the liver,” Dr. Tager explained. While glucose and blood sugar are buzzy in the wellness world these days, a nutrient-dense diet (think: plenty of protein, fats, and fiber at every meal) should be all you need for the average person to achieve healthy blood sugar levels.
It may promote gut health
Because of its antibacterial properties, berberine has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for the treatment of gastrointestinal infections, such as bacterial diarrhea. Research from the American Society for Microbiology found that a high dose of berberine improves the gut wall and reduces intestinal inflammation. Dr. Tager added that berberine alters the composition of gut microbiota and improves gut barrier function.
It can support heart health
According to research, Berberine also shows promising benefits for heart health for multiple reasons. Berberine stimulates the release of nitric oxide, a signaling molecule that relaxes the arteries, increases blood flow, and lowers blood pressure. Moreover, according to a study in the World Journal of Cardiology, people who took berberine had better heart function and were better able to exercise than those who took a placebo. Berberine is also beneficial for heart health because it works to lower LDL (negative cholesterol) and raise HDL (good cholesterol). “Studies have shown berberine may help lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels while increasing the protective HDL cholesterol levels,” Dr. Tager confirmed. Berberine inhibits a particular enzyme known as PCKSK9 that helps decrease LDL cholesterol.
It may be beneficial for people with PCOS
Five million US women of child-bearing years are affected by polycystic ovary syndrome (AKA PCOS) and have to manage symptoms like irregular periods, excess body hair, weight gain, and acne. The good news? One study found that berberine improved participants’ hormone status and cardiovascular profile as well as other factors involved in PCOS, such as weight, BMI, and total cholesterol, more than metformin, a classical drug used in PCOS. More studies need to be done to confirm berberine’s effect on PCOS symptoms, but the research so far is promising.
Does Berberine actually help you lose weight?
TikTok is a breeding ground for wellness advice, and any claims made on the platform—in this case, the purported slimming capabilities of berberine— should be taken with a grain of salt. “It’s important to note that the term ‘nature’s Ozempic’ is not an established term in the medical or scientific community,” Dr. Tager conveyed. “Berberine is being referred to this way in consumer media because of its potential ability to support weight management and blood sugar control. Berberine is a distinct compound that may affect the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin, which help promote satiety in the brain, so people will instinctively eat less. However, the mechanism of action is not fully understood at this point.” The takeaway? Despite social media associating berberine with weight loss, there’s no substantial evidence to prove that the supplement promotes weight loss. “More research is needed to determine exactly how it is working inside the body,” Dr. Tager noted.
No surprise, there is no sustainable quick fix to weight loss. Fill your plate with foods that make your body feel good, exercise regularly, prioritize stress relief and joy over everything else, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep (wellness does not have to be so complicated!). If you have weight-related concerns about your health, of course, talk to your doctor. Otherwise, get honest with yourself about why you’re attracted to a quick fix to weight loss; it may have more to do with how you feel about your body than how healthy it is in its current size.
Does Berberine have negative side effects?
Dr. Tager pointed out that any botanical (even natural) can have a side effect. “In the case of Berberine, it is usually related to the gut, where it can potentially lead to some GI side effects, such as bloating, diarrhea, or nausea,” he said. “In general, Berberine is poorly absorbed from the gut, so most manufacturers load up a lot in their formulations. While there is no established recommended dose for berberine at this time, the most tested amount is between 1,000mg-1,500mg per day.”
It is also not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding people. Also, the supplement may poorly interact with certain medications. “Berberine may interact with prescription medications, most notably metformin, with which it shares a similar mechanism of action,” Dr. Tager warned. “If you are on medications or considering surgery, always discuss any supplements you are taking with your clinician.”
In conclusion: Is Berberine worth taking?
As with many natural supplements, we conclude that more research needs to be done to determine Berberine’s efficacy. Many people (including some doctors, nutritionists, and other experts) believe in its positive effects on the body, while others see it as just a passing trend with a good PR stint (reminder: no, it is not “nature’s Ozempic”). While its benefits can be promising, you can also reap a lot of the same benefits through a nutrient-rich diet, filled with clean proteins, healthy fats, and fibrous fruits, veggies, and other carbohydrates. If you’re considering adding Berberine to your routine, first consult with a healthcare professional who can provide personalized guidance based on your individual health needs and circumstances.
Please consult a doctor or a mental health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.