A Guide to Berberine’s Blood Sugar Benefits & Side Effects
Berberine is a plant extract traced to ancient medicine. But modern science reveals this “natural drug”[*] works as well as the anti-diabetic drug, metformin,[*] making it an effective tool to consider for healthy blood sugar balance.
Outside of the scientific and homeopathic communities, many health-minded Americans may wonder what is berberine, because it’s not as recognizable as other antioxidants, such as resveratrol and turmeric.
Like turmeric, Berberine has a deep, vibrant yellow color. And while its powerful therapeutic compounds are linked to an assortment of benefits, such as a healthy heart and gut, it’s how berberine benefits blood sugar, metabolism, mood, and supports weight loss that we’ll explore here.
What is Berberine?
Native to China and India, berberine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found within the rhizome, root, and stem bark of plants such as tree turmeric, goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), goldthread (Coptis chinensis), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), and Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium).
Berberine’s therapeutic properties are believed to be antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory and produce anti-oxidative activity.
Plant alkaloids are a class of active compounds proven to have physiological effects on humans and have been adopted into Western medicine, the most recognizable being morphine and ephedrine.
History of Berberine
The clay tablet of an Assyrian emperor from 650 B.C. depicts the first recorded use of barberry fruit as a blood-purifying agent. Berberine has been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, and Native American healing rituals for centuries.
Within Ayurveda, considered to be the oldest healing science, berberine has enjoyed over 1,000 years of use. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, berberine is used for an assortment of health concerns, from calming indigestion and hemorrhoids, to minimizing obesity and dysentery.[*]
In Chinese medicine, it has long been used to help eliminate toxins and support the liver’s natural cleansing process.
How Berberine Helps to Stabilize Blood Sugar
A balanced level of blood sugar is a key factor in maintaining steady energy and mood and reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It also plays a vital role in how macronutrients become converted to fuel.
Carbohydrates in wheat, grains, and simple sugars trigger the pancreas to secrete insulin, a hormone that helps cells absorb glucose and convert it to energy. The more carbs in the body, the more insulin is released to encourage absorption, that is, until maximum occupancy is reached.
Numerous human clinical studies as well as animal and in vitro studies strongly support that the active compounds in berberine have the ability to reduce blood sugar, thereby having a positive snowball effect on other physiological conditions.
While scientists are uncertain about the precise combination of action responsible for berberine’s effect on glycemic control, there are theories about the suggested pathway.
- Berberine may activate the ‘metabolic master switch’: An energy-stabilizing enzyme found inside cells, AMPK (adenosine monophosphate kinase), is known as a ‘metabolic master switch’ due to its positive influence on metabolism.[*] It’s believed that this helps improve insulin sensitivity at the cellular level.
- Berberine helps slow the sugar factory: According to studies, berberine may stimulate glycolysis, the metabolic pathway by which sugar is broken down and converted to energy, and may inhibit gluconeogenesis, the creation of glucose.[*] In effect, these activities decrease insulin sensitivity and help to balance blood sugar levels.
- Berberine supports the liver: Plant compounds are thought to help improve insulin sensitivity in the liver by reducing its production of glucose. Additionally, berberine is thought to boost thermogenesis. These activities help suppress the liver’s tendency to make new glucose when liver cells become insulin resistant.
Despite the many berberine benefits that continue to be explored, it’s the alkaloid’s ability to improve insulin sensitivity, which also has added effects on other conditions that rely on stable blood sugar levels.
Berberine for High Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Millions of individuals struggle with blood sugar imbalance, where the pancreas is unable to produce an adequate supply of insulin, or cells are insulin resistant. In fact, a 2017 report from the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC) states an alarming 100 million Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic, further burdening an already taxed healthcare system.
“Diabetes is when your blood sugar or glucose levels are higher than normal. It’s carbohydrate foods like breads, cereals, rice, pasta, fruits, milk, and desserts that can cause this rise,” says Maggie Powers, Ph.D., RD, CDE, a research scientist, and diabetes expert.
Studies show that berberine can help reduce blood glucose and lower fasting glucose levels in Type 2 diabetic individuals.[*][*][*] In fact, it has been found that the therapeutic properties in berberine work in a similar way to the popular antidiabetic drug, metformin, without adverse side effects. [*]
This is promising research, as diabetic and prediabetic individuals may have a natural alternative to maintaining balanced blood sugar levels.
Berberine for Weight Loss
There’s a strong correlation between blood sugar and weight loss. Insulin not only helps transport sugar into cells to be used as energy — it also signals when there’s enough energy, after which the body starts to store it for later use and stops fat burning.
When blood sugar drops too low, the body reacts to the shortage of energy by setting off a chain of events that can lead to a feeding frenzy and overconsumption of calories, particularly in the form of simple sugars and carbohydrates.
Research on berberine for weight loss and fat-burning activity is limited but promising. In one 12-week study, subjects lost about 2.3% body weight — or 5 pounds — and lowered BMI and body fat percentage by 3.6% with a dosage of 3,500 mg per day.[*] Another 3-month study revealed a drop in BMI, from 31.5 to 27.4, in obese individuals, as well as a reduction in waist circumference.[*]
Berberine and Mood
A normal fasting blood sugar level (such as after waking in the morning) is between 70 and 99 mg/dL, and below 140 mg/dL two hours after eating. Both, hyperglycemia (too much sugar in the blood) and hypoglycemia (not enough sugar) can affect mood, cognition, and behavior in different ways.
In diabetics, fluctuations in blood glucose can bring about mood swings.[*] In people with type 1 diabetes, they may experience confusion when glucose rises above 250 mg/dL. Symptoms of high blood sugar include confusion, nervousness, and low energy or tiredness.
Conversely, low blood sugar can produce symptoms such as confusion, anxiety, and difficulty making decisions, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Berberine For Regulating Gut Microbiota
Berberine’s traditional use to naturally treat digestive issues makes sense given its superior antimicrobial activity. According to studies, it can help balance the gut biome’s ratios of good and bad bacteria.[*] This may prove to be another pathway by which berberine may help counter diabetes, as studies indicate that gut biome support may have anti-diabetic effects.
Berberine Dosage Guidelines
To enjoy the glucose-reducing benefits of berberine, it’s important to consume the optimal amount of therapeutic compounds.
Unlike many powerful antioxidants found in common foods such as turmeric (curry, golden milk) and resveratrol (red grapes, dark chocolate), berberine’s active alkaloids are derived from plants that are not readily accessible and available for consumption.
That’s why a high-quality berberine supplement is recommended at the right daily serving. While berberine largely remains nature’s untapped resource in the fight against high blood sugar and diabetes, there are enough berberine supplements on the market to make choosing the right one a confusing task.
Choosing the Right Berberine Supplement
The extract, berberine aristata, has been used in many studies on the effects of berberine.
Derived from Indian barberry, also known as “tree turmeric,” berberine aristata is prepared using a special process for isolating the active chemical compounds and maintaining their strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial profile.
Berberine hydrochloride, labeled berberine HCL on supplement labels, is a common formulation.
How Much Berberine Should You Take?
Once you’ve selected a pure, high-quality berberine supplement from a trusted source, the next step is to understand how much berberine to take every day for optimal benefits.
Generally, research supports a daily serving of between 500 mg to 1,500 mg. A review of 14 clinical studies with over 1,000 participants concluded that a daily dosage within this range helped promote healthy glucose metabolism.[*]
Other studies have explored the highest dosage — some of them revealing that 1,500 mg of berberine a day can help to lower fasting glucose levels by 20% as well as A1c level, which is the average blood sugar level over an extended period.[*][*][*]
Another study instructed participants to take 500 mg of berberine three times a day for 13 weeks. By the end of the study, there was a significant amount of weight loss, approximately a 3.6% reduction in body fat.[*]
What about a lower to mid-range amount?
One study that measured gastrointestinal cellular health found that berberine doses at about 900 mg per day promoted non-toxic, endothelial cell lining health.[*]
Most berberine supplements are available in 500 mg capsules.
Boost Absorption of Berberine Supplements
Similarly to turmeric and curcumin, berberine has low bioavailability.[*] Unlike turmeric, however, berberine consumption is limited to a supplement. To ensure a sufficient amount of the active properties are consumed to produce benefits, a larger serving size divided throughout the day is generally regarded as necessary.
Berberine Side Effects
Berberine supplements could affect individuals differently. Though they’re generally well tolerated within serving guidelines provided above, the most common side effect is gastrointestinal discomfort such as constipation, diarrhea, flatulence, or abdominal distension.[*][*]
Certain individuals should not take berberine supplements:
- Antidiabetic drug counter effects – Do not take berberine supplements if you are on a prescription antidiabetic, as blood sugar may decrease to unsafe levels.[*]
- Liver conditions – Berberine may slow the liver’s ability to remove bilirubin. If you have high bilirubin levels, avoid taking berberine.
- Pregnancy – Berberine may cause a rare type of brain damage, called kernicterus, in newborns with severe jaundice. Jaundice occurs when there is too much bilirubin in the blood, and berberine may impede its removal.[*]
- Berberine is a potent plant alkaloid with a deep-yellow hue that contains anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
- This ancient extract has been used for centuries in Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, and Native American healing rituals due to its ability to have a physiological effect on humans.
- Managing blood sugar is one of the top uses, but berberine benefits also include weight-loss, higher energy, and better mood.
- Berberine supplements are the only practical way to consume the active compounds. Studies show a daily serving of 500 mg to 1,500 mg may be beneficial to good health.