While berberine has been an integral part of folk medicine systems like Traditional Chinese Medicine, it has recently gained popularity in mainstream wellness culture. This vivid yellow substance is often used because of its numerous potential health benefits, which include supporting a healthy weight, promoting cardiovascular health, and maintaining blood sugar levels already within the normal range. But what is berberine, and could taking this supplement be right for you?
What is Berberine?
Berberine is a compound that can be extracted from a number of plants, although it is most commonly extracted from Berberis shrubs. Berberis is also called barberry, and these are deciduous evergreen shrubs found in temperate and subtropical climates. Barberries have yellow flowers and scarlet colored berries and are often found in areas of Iraq, China, and India. Berberine is also found in plants like tree turmeric, Oregon grape, goldenseal, yellowroot, Amur cork tree, prickly poppy, and the California poppy. Another source of berberine is coptis, which is sometimes called Chinese golden thread or just golden thread. This plant produces delicate star-shaped flowers and has a bright yellow rhizome. Berberine is typically extracted from the rhizome of plants, although it can also be obtained in lesser amounts from stems, leaves, and bark.
Berberine is an alkaloid, which refers to a class of nitrogen-containing bases. The name alkaloid, means “alkali-like,” because like inorganic alkali, alkaloids react with acids to form salts. Alkaloids are primarily found in plants, although they have been identified in fungi and certain animals like the New World beaver and poison dart frog. Some suggest that alkaloids are the waste products from various metabolic processes, but there is also evidence to suggest that they may serve specific functions like seed formation. Molecularly, alkaloids are extremely diverse, although they generally contain one nitrogen atom. Alkaloids are colorless and non-volatile solids that tend to have a bitter flavor.(1)
The first alkaloid to be isolated was the active compound in opium: morphine. Other well-known alkaloids include codeine, quinidine, ergonovine, and ephedrine, quinine, and tubocurarine. While many alkaloids are generally thought to be benign, the group also contains harmful substances like cocaine and nicotine, as well as the active ingredients in heroin and LSD.(2) However, unlike these substances, berberine offers a number of potential benefits to support your health, and has become increasingly popular in the natural health world.
How Berberine is Extracted
There are a number of methods to extract berberine from plants so it can be used as a supplement. One of the most common methods is the aqueous extraction, specifically a two part extraction. In this method, ethanol and ammonium sulfate are combined with berberine hydrochloride and then put in a water-bath heater for 30 minutes. The extracted liquid is then dried and can be used; it is often found in capsule form.(3)
Another method is the acid dye method, where methyl orange is added to filtered berberis aristata and mixed in a cyclomixer for one minute. The resulting solution is mixed with ammonia and then used because "the acid dye method used minimizes the interference of other closely related constituents."(4) Right now, it is unclear which method is more effective when it comes to extracting berberine.
Berberine and Traditional Chinese Medicine
It is thought that berberine was first identified by the scientists Buchner and Herberger, who isolated it from a barberry plant in 1835. However, they identified the compound as a weak acid, rather than a base. Discovery has also been attributed to Chevallier and Pelletan in 1826, who identified it as zanthopicrite.(5) However, before its scientific beginnings, berberine has been used for many years in folk medicine traditions such as Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) originated in China and is rooted in the philosophy of Taoism, which stretches back nearly 3,000 years. It focuses on the balance between the yin and yang in the body, as well as a balance between the five elements. It is thought that the body is a microcosm of the surrounding universe, and that good health comes when there is a balance between yin and yang (the opposing but complementary forces in the body). The body is sustained by qi, or life force, which flows throughout the body and maintains health.
TCM uses a system of herbs and mind/body practices like acupuncture and massage to support overall health and well being. In fact, it is estimated that 3.1 million Americans have had an acupuncture treatment in the last year, 2.3 million practice tai chi, and that 600,000 practice qi gong (a mind/body practice that works to support harmony). It is thought that over one million people in America alone use TCM herbal supplements to promote their health.
One of the herbs often used in TCM is berberine, and some of the earliest mentions of berberine are in the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, which translates to The Classic of Herbal Medicine, or the Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic. This work is thought to be a compilation of oral traditions composed between 200 and 250 A.D. It was sometimes referred to as “golden thread,” and there are numerous references to its bitter flavor, especially when extracted from the coptis herb. In fact, a proverb during this period states “The dumb man eating the coptis herb – he had to suffer the bitterness in silence.” (6) Berberine was used to offer support for gastrointestinal health, heart health, and to support a healthy internal response. It’s important to note that herbs are usually not used alone in TCM, but are combined with a number of other plants. Berberine is sometimes combined with plants like bitter melon or ginseng. In TCM, berberine is also taken to balance water and fire elements, since it is thought to have bitter and cold qualities.
Berberine Use in Other Cultures
Berberine is also found in goldenseal, which is native to the Northern United States and has a hairy stem with small, greenish-white flowers. It was used in Native American cultures to support healthy looking skin, promote eye health, and to soothe an upset stomach. The root (the primary source of berberine), was sometimes dried, ground to a powder, and mixed with bear fat to make an insect repellent.(7)
In India, berberine is often extracted from tree turmeric (sometimes called Indian barberry), which is grown in the Himalayas. It has been used to support a healthy internal response and is sometimes made into a poultice to soothe burns. Other uses include supporting liver health, promoting healthy looking skin, supporting digestive system health, and promoting normal bowel movements.
In addition to its use as a health-supportive herb, berberine was also used as a dye. Berberine has a vivid yellow color and was widely used to dye paper and silk in Ancient China. The dye was also thought to protect the paper from insects.(8) It has also been used to dye wool in India and was used as a stain when looking at cells under a microscope. Currently, this dye is known as “natural yellow 18” (one of roughly 35 yellow dyes from natural sources). It is identified as 75160 on the color index.
Berberine has also become a popular supplement in the western culture and continues to be studied for its potential health benefits. Recent research has indicated that berberine may support healthy blood sugar levels already within the normal range. In one study, researchers studied the effects of berberine on patients with Type 2 Diabetes. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded, “berberine is a potent oral hypoglycemic agent with modest effect on lipid metabolism. It is safe and the cost of treatment by berberine is very low. It may serve as a new drug candidate in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.” However, studies into berberine’s effects on this important health issue are still ongoing.(9)
Additionally, berberine may offer support for a healthy weight. In a 2012 study, obese subjects were given 500 mg of berberine orally three times a day for twelve weeks. At the end of the study, “The results demonstrate that berberine treatment produced a mild weight loss (average 5 lb/subject) in obese human subjects.” Researchers also noted, “more interestingly, the treatment significantly reduced blood lipid levels (23% decrease of triglyceride and 12.2% decrease of cholesterol levels) in human subjects.” The experiment was repeated on rats, which yielded similar results. Further, it was discovered that “Tests of hematological, cardiovascular, liver, and kidney function following berberine treatment showed no detrimental side effects to this natural compound.” This study concludes that berberine may not only support a healthy weight but also promotes healthy blood lipid levels already in the normal range.(10)
There have also been studies into berberines effects on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is characterized by hepatic fat accumulation, insulin resistance, and may also have negative effects on blood glucose and blood lipid levels. One 2015 study looked at the effects of a botanic compound berberine (BBR) on patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). According to the results of the study, “oral administration of BBR significantly reduced HFC [hepatic fat content], body weight, and improved metabolic profile for lipid and glucose in patients with NAFLD... Therefore, BBR is a promising agent to treat NAFLD, as well as their related metabolic diseases.”(11) While similar studies are ongoing, research suggests that the potential benefits of berberine may be far-reaching.
There have also been over 500 studies that examine berberine’s effect on cancer cells. Researchers theorize that it may have a beneficial effect on cancer cells due to its support of a healthy internal response. While conclusive evidence is still needed, berberine is thought to “[inhibit] proliferation and induces G1-phase arrest and apoptosis in human prostate cancer cells but not in normal human prostate epithelial cells.”(12)
Other Potential Health Benefits of Berberine
- Seeks to support healthy insulin levels
- Supports a healthy internal response
- May support a healthy metabolism
- Supports healthy cholesterol levels already in the normal range
- May support healthy blood sugar levels already in the normal range
- May support bowel health and promote normal elimination
- Supports digestive system health
- Offers support for energy, lipid, and metabolism imbalance (13)
Berberine continues to be studied for its potential health benefits and continues to be used in a number of folk medicine systems, so it is likely that the use of this alkaloid will only increase in the coming years. Researchers are currently developing stable, cloned cells from coptis with large amounts of berberine that could be used to support a number of various health issues. (14)
How to Choose a Berberine Supplement
If you decide to start taking berberine, it can be difficult to distinguish the best supplement to support your health. One of the most popular options is simply taking a berberine supplement. Most of these supplements are in capsule form and allow you to get the right amount of berberine for your body.
You can also choose a supplement that combines berberine with other herbal extracts. For example, choosing a berberine supplement with curcumin may have added benefits to support your health, including supporting a healthy internal response, promoting joint health, and supporting a healthy immune system. When combined with plants like bergamot, berberine may support cardiovascular health, offer antioxidant support, and may support healthy cholesterol levels already within the normal range.
You may also choose a supplement like goldenseal, Oregon grape, or barberry, which all contain berberine as an active ingredient. These herbal extracts may also offer other nutrients to support your health, and may also contain antioxidants that work to protect your cells from free radical damage.
If you’re interested in reading more about the potential health benefits of berberine and the many ways it is being used, there are a number of studies you can read, or you can call us and talk to one of our registered dieticians about how berberine could make a difference for your health.
We also carry a number of berberine supplements from all your favorite brands, so make sure to shop our selection if you choose to add berberine to your health routine.