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June 05, 2023

Berberine is being lauded as a weight-loss remedy on social media. Does it actually work?

Research suggests the supplement may have some metabolic benefits, but many medical experts say its too soon to know whether it's safe and effective

Wellness Weight Loss
Berberine Weight Loss Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Berberine, an over-the-counter supplement, has been touted as a weight loss aid on social media. But many medical experts say more research is needed on its safety and efficacy.

Berberine, an over-the-counter supplement derived from barberry bushes, is the latest weight loss remedy to gain steam on social media, with some users calling it "nature's Ozempic" due to its plant-based origins and growing reputation as an alternative to the popular prescription drug. 

A search for berberine on TikTok yields thousands of videos about the supplement, with 90 million views in total. Though some videos warn potential users about its possible side effects and medication interactions, many influencers are using TikTok to document its impacts on their bodies as they try to lose weight, manage high blood sugar or improve the symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Berberine is a compound found in plants like barberry bushes, goldthread and tree turmeric. Its medicinal uses can be traced back thousands of years to Chinese and Ayurvedic practices, when it was used to treat ailments like pink eye, urinary tract infections and low blood sugar. It's typically sold in powder or capsule form, and ranges in doses from 500 to 1,500 milligrams. 

In recent months, the supplement has been compared to Ozempic and other semaglutide injections, which require prescriptions. Those anti-diabetic medications typically are used to manage weight and blood sugar, but they have gained popularity as anti-obesity treatments and appetite suppressants. Though a 30-day supply of Ozempic can cost as much as $1,000, a bottle of berberine ranges from $20-$50, making it more affordable and accessible. 

But doctors advise consumers to proceed with caution.

"You don't have to deal with a doctor, and it's going to be a lot less expensive (than Ozempic)," Dr. Pieter Cohen, a supplement researcher at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, told NBC News. "So from an advertising perspective, it's perfect. An active pharmaceutical drug like berberine, it's not the kind of thing you should just be taking willy-nilly."

Health experts remain unsure whether berberine is effective or safe for weight loss. Some of the emerging research indicates that it may help people regulate their metabolism, but most of the research into the supplement's impacts has been conducted on mice, not humans. 

A review of 49 studies, published in October, found that berberine may provide some metabolic health benefits, primarily in the heart, but also some small weight loss benefits. People who used berberine lost about one gram, or 0.03 ounces, per day, the review found. 

Berberine also has been shown to be effective at managing chronic conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and inflammatory diseases. A 2020 study found that the effect of berberine supplements on blood sugar levels provided a "significant cure" for patients with type 2 diabetes, obesity and similar diseases. 

"We really need to see where the research goes — it's too soon to say if it helps with weight loss for sure," Jessica Cording, a nutritionist and author of "The Little Book of Game-Changers," told Prevention. "With more people becoming aware of the class of medication that Ozempic is in, we're seeing more people look for other options. But berberine needs to be studied more before we can understand if it's truly effective or safe." 

People with type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome — which can lead to diabetes, heart disease or stroke — may benefit the most from using berberine, because it can help lower and regulate blood sugar levels. Though berberine can be taken in conjunction with some diabetes medications, it should not be taken as a replacement for diabetes medicines, according to Cleveland Clinic

Because berberine can help with insulin resistance and increase glucose movement, people with hyperglycemia also may benefit from using it.

Some early research has linked berberine to weight loss or reductions in body fat. Though more research is needed, one clinical trial found that participants with nonalcoholic liver disease who took the supplement daily experienced significant weight loss. Because berberine activates an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase, it may help regulate metabolism and influence body composition. 

Like most supplements, berberine is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so health experts advise people to be cautious when purchasing different brands, some of which have added fillers. People who take prescription medications should check with their doctors before trying berberine, because the supplement may interact with other drugs. 

Though berberine has been linked to an increase in good gut bacteria, most of its side effects impact the digestive system. The most common side effects of using the supplement include stomach pains and swelling, constipation, diarrhea and nausea. Not everyone who takes the supplement will experience the side effects, but experts at Cleveland Clinic recommend beginning with a smaller dose to see how it interacts with the body before starting the recommended dose. 

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