To appreciate berberine you must first understand metabolic syndrome because the two go hand in hand. Berberine has such a wide range of health benefits because the mechanisms of action with berberine revolve around the co-occurrence of insulin resistance, obesity, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure (aka metabolic syndrome). (1) Also, berberine has antifungal activity and can influence hormone balance as well. It truly is a remarkable herbal medicine.

What is berberine?

Berberine is a powerful natural compound found in several plants including goldenseal, Oregon grape, tree turmeric, and barberry. It has been a staple of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years and grows in moderate and semi-tropical regions of Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, and South America. (2)

Berberine extract in a wooden bowl on table

Berberine —a staple of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine—activates AMPK, an enzyme that helps regulate many biological activities.

What does berberine do?

In the human body, the key mechanism of action with berberine is the activation of adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK). (3) This is an important enzyme often referred to as the metabolic master switch because it helps regulate many biological activities including lipids, glucose, and energy metabolism. Specific to blood sugar control and diabetes, berberine is also an aldose reductase inhibitor, which is important because aldose reductase is an enzyme that has been shown to worsen blood sugar issues in diabetics. (4)

What is berberine good for?

The list of berberine benefits is long and diverse. Berberine has been the focus of numerous studies and in some cases, it was compared to or used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals.

Here is a list of what berberine is used for.

Blood sugar

Of course, the most well-known illness associated with elevated blood sugar levels is diabetes. Research shows that berberine lowers fasting blood sugar and the blood sugar marker hemoglobin A1C. (5) According to a 2012 meta-analysis of 14 different studies featuring more than 1,000 people, berberine was shown to be just as effective as oral diabetes drugs. (6)

Blood pressure

There is some research showing that berberine can lower blood pressure via vasodilation and relaxing smooth muscle cells within the vessel walls. (7) Berberine works similar to calcium channel blockers by reducing the pressure in the arteries.

practitioner taking the blood pressure of a patient

Like calcium channel blockers, berberine can lower blood pressure in the arteries.

Cholesterol

High cholesterol is considered an independent risk factor for heart disease. Berberine helps lower cholesterol by clearing LDL cholesterol in the liver as it upregulates LDL-receptor expression. (8) A 2013 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials also showed that berberine was safe and effective at lowering LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and total cholesterol, as well as raising HDL cholesterol. (9)

Candida

Berberine also has anti-fungal properties, specifically against the yeast candida. A 2016 in vitro study showed that berberine was effective at killing fluconazole-resistant strains of candida. (10) Research shows that berberine kills yeast by attacking the cell membrane. (11)

PCOS

When cysts develop on the ovaries, a hormonal condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can develop. This condition is characterized by a hormone imbalance that causes women to skip menstrual periods and have difficulty getting pregnant. A 2015 study involving Chinese women with PCOS demonstrated that berberine alone was effective at improving the menstrual pattern and ovulation rate of the women. (12)

SIBO

Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is becoming more common in clinical practice. Presently, in some cases, oral antibiotics are used to treat this condition. According to a 2014 study featuring 104 patients diagnosed with SIBO, berberine was just as effective as the antibiotic Rifaximin. (13)

Weight loss

Given berberine’s positive effect on metabolic syndrome, it’s not surprising that it can also help with weight loss. A 2012 study that featured patients diagnosed with metabolic syndrome showed that three months of treatment with berberine resulted in decreased body mass index (BMI) and leptin levels, demonstrating that it can improve insulin sensitivity and inhibit fat storage. (14)

The bottom line

Given the many therapeutic applications of this powerful substance, increasing berberine intake is a good idea for many patients. Because berberine is only found in herbs and not foods, it makes sense to consider a berberine supplement. Ask your healthcare practitioner about berberine and overall changes to your health.

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  1. Huang PL. A comprehensive definition for metabolic syndrome. Disease Models & Mechanisms. 2009;2(5-6):231–237.
  2. Rahimi-Madiseh M, Lorigoini Z, Zamani-Gharaghoshi H, Rafieian-Kopaei M. Berberis vulgaris: specifications and traditional uses. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences. 2017;20(5):569–587.
  3. Schor J. Clinical applications of berberine. Natural Medicine Journal. 2012;4(12).
  4. Saraswat M, Muthenna P, Suryanarayana P, et al. Dietary sources of aldose reductase inhibitors: prospects for alleviating diabetic complications. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008;17(4):558-565.
  5. Zhang Y, Li X, Zou D, et al. Treatment of type 2 diabetes and dyslipidemia with the natural plant alkaloid berberine. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2008;93(7):2559-2565.
  6. Dong H, Wang N, Zhao L, Lu F. Berberine in the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012;2012.
  7. Bagade A, Tumbigeremutt V, Pallavi G. Cardiovascular effects of berberine: a review of the literature. Journal of Restorative Medicine. 2017;6.
  8. Wang Y, Zidichouski JA. Update on the Benefits and Mechanisms of Action of the Bioactive Vegetal Alkaloid Berberine on Lipid Metabolism and Homeostasis. Cholesterol. 2018;2018.
  9. Dong H, Zhao, Y, Zhao L, Lu F. The effects of berberine on blood lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Planta Medica. 2013;79(06):437-446.
  10. da Silva AR, de Andrade Neto JB, da Silva CR, et al. Berberine antifungal activity in fluconazole-resistant pathogenic yeasts: action mechanism evaluated by flow cytometry and biofilm growth inhibition in candida spp. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. 2016;60(6):3551–3557.
  11. Zorić N, Kosalec I, Tomić S, et al. Membrane of Candida albicans as a target of berberine. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2017;17(1):268.
  12. Li L, Li C, Pan P, et al. A single arm pilot study of effects of berberine on the menstrual pattern, ovulation rate, hormonal and metabolic profiles in anovulatory Chinese women with polycystic ovary syndrome. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(12).
  13. Chedid V, Dhalla S, Clarke JO, et al. Herbal therapy is equivalent to rifaximin for the treatment of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Global Advances in Health and Medicine. 2014;3(3):16–24.
  14. Yang J, Yin J, Gao H, et al. Berberine improves insulin sensitivity by inhibiting fat store and adjusting adipokines profile in human preadipocytes and metabolic syndrome patients. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012;2012.