Last Updated July 8th, 2019
What is berberine?
Berberine is a dark yellow salt based supplement. It is an alkaloid and is usually found in plants like barberry, tree turmeric, prickly poppy, etc. It is present in plant parts like roots, stems, and barks. The ancient uses of berberine are rooted in Chinese medicine as well as Ayurveda. Because of its yellow color berberine was used to dye wood, wools, and leather.
How Does It Work?
- There is an enzyme called the adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK). This is largely involved in regulating the energy production pathways in the body. It regulates the cells by controlling the two states of energy production and energy utilization AMPK is present in the cells of the lungs, kidneys brain, muscles, and the heart.
- There are many studies showing that berberine affects this AMPK enzyme.
- When you consume berberine, it gets transported to the cells in the body via the blood. Inside the cells, this berberine stimulates AMPK (the metabolic switch).
- There are some studies that also mention that berberine may affect other molecules in the cells and also cause the genes to be switched on or off.
- Berberine enhances the functioning of the AMPK enzyme and this results in higher energy levels.
Berberine reduces the blood sugar levels
Diabetes is a condition of high blood glucose. Insulin is a hormone that reduces blood glucose levels. Type 2 diabetes is due to a lack of insulin or insulin resistance. High blood glucose levels result in damaging effects on the cells of the body. The glucose transport gets affected in the cells and this disrupts the entire cellular machinery. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage the body’s tissues and organs, leading to fatal health problems.
There are other studies which highlight the following traits shown by berberine to minimize the blood glucose levels:
- Insulin resistance gets decreased. This will enhance the sensitivity or the function of insulin better.
- It stimulates the disruption of sugars in the cells.
- Reduces sugar production in the liver
- The carbohydrate digestion in the gut will become slow
- Enhances beneficial bacterial population in the gut
The effects of berberine work well with a good lifestyle. This alkaloid also has additive effects when used along with other anti-diabetic medications (which means it increases the efficacy of diabetes medicines).
Berberine helps in weight loss
There was a study of a twelve-week duration in obese individuals. These people were given 500 mg berberine three times every day. These obese individuals showed a body fat loss of 3.6%. Another study was performed in 37 men and 37 women who had metabolic syndrome. These individuals were given 300 mg of berberine supplements 3 times a day for about 3 months. These individuals showed a reduced belly fat and also showed a significant reduction in their body mass index (BMI, a body fat measure with respect to the height and weight).
This fat reduction is linked to the enhanced function of fat-regulating hormones like adiponectin, leptin, and insulin by berberine extract. There are reports also showing that berberine disrupts the growth of fat cells.
Berberine helps in reducing the cholesterol levels
There are lipoprotein (LDL) sensors or receptors (called LDL receptors or LDLR) which regulate the cholesterol levels in the body. If these sensors are enhanced, the cholesterol levels come down.
There was a study done on hamster subjects with hypercholesterolemia (excessive levels of cholesterol in the blood). These subjects were given berberine hydrochloride at 0.5 g b.i.d. for about 3 months. It was seen that the bad cholesterol levels reduced notably and this did not affect the good cholesterol levels. The researches have linked this to the enhanced or stimulating effect on the LDLR. Thus, berberine offers a promising solution in the arena of natural cholesterol-lowering extracts.
Berberine is used to treat bacterial infections
Some bacteria tend to form biofilms. Biofilms are produced when a group of bacterial cells stick together and produce a filmy substance. The intactness of the biofilm is maintained because of toxic proteins of the filmy substance. This is the underlying reason for bacterial infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, etc.
Berberine binds to these toxic sticky proteins causing the bacterial cells in the biofilm to scatter. This breaks the biofilm and disperses the individual bacterial cells; making it easier for the bacteria to be killed by antibiotics (antibacterial medications). That is why berberine is advised along with some antibiotics as it is said to stimulate the activity of antibiotics.
Berberine can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s is a disruptive brain disorder that is caused by certain proteins (amyloid-ß peptide) sticking together forming a plaque. This, in turn, prevents the nerve cells of the brain from communicating or signaling with each other. These amyloid-ß peptides are derived from certain proteins.
The molecular basis of Alzheimer’s disease is similar to the principle of how toxic proteins maintain the integrity of a bacterial biofilm. There are few studies that show that berberine treatment helps in suppressing the precursor proteins. This will minimize the synthesis of the sticky amyloid-ß peptide and thus bring down the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Berberine possess anti-inflammatory properties
Inflammation takes place either because of any microbial or a foreign substance invasion into the body or due to an injury. There are cases where some individual bacterial cells get released from the biofilm every now and then.
These individual bacterial cells will go and invade the healthy tissues of the body. These bacteria tend to release toxins into the cells thereby killing the healthy cells. The immune system will come to know of this and triggers an inflammatory action to counter the bacteria.
It is because of this sprinkle of individual bacteria infecting the body’s cells, that an individual experiences symptoms like dehydration (low hydration levels), diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, etc. Berberine helps in minimizing the inflammation. Here, it prevents the binding of the toxins to the cells. This will prevent the trigger of an immune response towards the toxins.
Berberine for obesity
In the natural approaches to counter obesity, berberine is one of the most effective solutions. You already know that berberine activates the AMPK mechanism. Upon activation of the AMPK system, body metabolism (growth, repair, and energy production) increases. This means that the fat burning mechanism is triggered in the cells. This is also proven in studies where berberine is used to burn the built-up fat in the body.
A study was done on obese humans with the administration of 500 mg of berberine for 12 weeks. The research showed that there was a 23% drop in the triglyceride levels and a lowering of 12.2% in the cholesterol. This implies that berberine extract has the potential of combating obesity as a disease.
Berberine for heart health
Heart diseases are caused by various factors such as stress, unhealthy diet, smoking, etc. Apart from this, you will observe that those who have high cholesterol or are diabetic or both have heart disorders. Berberine promotes better blood circulation in the heart. It does so by triggering the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates the arteries, promotes better blood circulation and lowers blood pressure as well. There are numerous reports showing that it also prevents arteriosclerosis.
Berberine and cancer
Berberine has shown to disrupt the tumor cell cycle multiplication or growth. It specifically targets cancer cells and retards their growth. It interacts with the cell’s mitochondria. This increases the oxidative stress on the cancer cells and causes rapid cancer-cell death. There are reports showing that it damages the DNA of the malignant cells. Some studies also show that it disrupts the energy production pathways in cancer cells thus bringing down the risk of tumor cell growth.
Berberine for the polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is a condition of irregularities in the menstrual cycle. Other symptoms also include increased facial hair, obesity, acne, etc. It affects 1 in 10 women at the conceiving age. Berberine has good cholesterol and blood sugar lowering abilities. This helps in minimizing the PCOS symptoms and enables a healthy hormonal balance.
A study was done on 102 Chinese women with berberine hydrochloride tablets (0.1g/tablet). This was performed for 4 months. The ovulation rate increased to 31% in overweight women and 22.5% in normal women. They also showed decreased testosterone levels, decreased levels of triglycerides (fat) and cholesterol. The fasting insulin levels decreased as well. Berberine improved the overall menstrual patterns too.
What are the side effects of berberine?
Side effects mostly occur when you consume it in excess. The following side effects may occur:
- Stomach pain
- Very low blood sugar levels and very low blood pressure which can be fatal
Who all must avoid consuming berberine?
- People with low blood pressure must avoid consuming berberine as it might lower the blood pressure even further.
- If a diabetic individual is taking insulin medication, taking berberine must be avoided.
- It must be avoided in infants or children as it increases the compound called bilirubin. Bilirubin is an end product from breakage of old red blood cells in the liver. If it builds up, it will have a toxic effect on the body and that is why it is generally cleared off by the liver. Berberine is said to slow the process of bilirubin excretion by the liver.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women must avoid berberine. It can harm the fetus and even cause brain damage in the baby.
A turmeric-like substance from the roots and barks of certain plants, berberine’s use began in the dying of wool. It’s therapeutic application go way back in the ancient times of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Berberine has potential benefits such as lowering cholesterol, diminishing the fatty liver condition, improving menstrual cycles, aiding anti-diabetic and strengthening anti-microbial properties. Berberine also has shown to have cancer cell killing property. Researches are going on to help curb the progressive neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. This seems to be a promising solution to a number of lifestyle diseases.
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