Berberine: A Powerful and Versatile Herbal Supplement

Berberine: A Powerful and Versatile Herbal Supplement

Julian Whitaker, MD

Herbal supplement sales have steadily increased over the past few years, but one botanical you won’t find among the bestsellers is berberine. In fact, if you can find it at all, it’s probably in products containing berberine-rich herbs such as goldenseal, Oregon grape, barberry, and goldthread (Coptis chinensis), aimed at curbing bacterial, viral, fungal, yeast, and parasitic infections.

That’s about to change. This plant alkaloid, revered in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine but largely ignored elsewhere, is poised to become one of our most powerful natural therapies for preventing and treating diabetes and cardiovascular disease, facilitating weight loss, combating cancer, and maybe even staving off dementia and the ravages of aging.

Better Than Metformin?

Berberine has been on my radar for years for fighting infections and boosting intestinal health, but I was pleasantly surprised when I came across research demonstrating its ability to lower blood sugar—and astonished to learn that it worked as well as metformin (Glucophage), the most popular drug for type 2 diabetes!

In a clinical trial published in Metabolism, people with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes were randomly divided into groups and assigned to take metformin or berberine. Improvements were noted the very first week, and at the study’s conclusion, the average blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c levels significantly decreased in both groups. Remarkably, as the graph on this page illustrates, berberine was every bit as effective as metformin. The two had “identical effect[s] in the regulation of glucose metabolism.”

Lipids, Blood Pressure, and Weight

Lowering blood sugar is just one of berberine’s strengths. Another study, a randomized, placebo-controlled trial, involved patients who had been recently diagnosed with diabetes and dyslipidemia (cholesterol/triglyceride abnormalities) but hadn’t yet started on drugs. They were instructed to take either 500 mg of berberine or a placebo capsule twice a day.

Like in the previous study, three months of berberine supplementation resulted in blood sugar improvements that were “fully comparable with that of existing pharmacologic products used in treatment of type 2 diabetes.”

But berberine did something diabetes drugs cannot do. It lowered triglycerides by 35.9 percent, LDL cholesterol by 21 percent, and total cholesterol by 18 percent, compared to minimal declines in cholesterol and an increase in triglycerides in the control group. Furthermore, the group taking berberine had lower blood pressure (average drop of 7/5 mm Hg systolic/diastolic) and modest weight and abdominal fat loss.

Cancer Control

Recent research suggests that berberine also has a role in cancer prevention and treatment, as it inhibits the growth of cancer cells, induces apoptosis (tumor cell death), curbs the development of blood vessels that feed tumors, and helps prevent metastasis.

Although most of the research is in animal models of human cancers, it is quite compelling. In a study of breast cancer, for example, it stopped cell cycle growth more effectively than doxorubicin, a commonly used drug, and has proven effective against a variety of tumor types.

Berberine is nowhere close to being an accepted cancer treatment, but because this natural compound enhances sensitivity to chemotherapy and radiation, thus improving their efficacy, it should be considered as an adjunct therapy.

Too Good to Be True?

How can one plant extract have all these diverse benefits? It sounds too good to be true—until you realize that berberine targets a very basic and ancient regulator of metabolism present in all animals and plants called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK).

Activated by decreased ATP (energy) production, AMPK turns on multiple protective metabolic pathways to ensure survival in times of stress. I’ve written before about the profound benefits of calorie restriction. Now we know that a primary reason reducing food intake prevents disease and extends life span is because it revs up AMPK activity.

AMPK stimulates the uptake of glucose into the cells, improves insulin sensitivity, and reduces glucose production in the liver, which is in overdrive in patients with diabetes. It slows the release of free fatty acids, which lowers lipid levels and prevents harmful fat deposition, and boosts fat burning in the mitochondria. It also stimulates the release of nitric oxide (NO), a signaling molecule that relaxes the arteries, increases blood flow and lowers blood pressure, and protects against atherosclerosis. In addition, it inhibits mTORC1, a pathway that promotes cellular proliferation and inhibits apoptosis, which appears to be central to its anti-cancer effects.

Drugs or Berberine?

Folks, what we have here is a safe, inexpensive, herbal supplement that mirrors the effects of the top-selling diabetes drug and lowers lipids, blood pressure, and weight and fights cancer. Yet hardly anyone knows about it!

Mark my words, you will be hearing much, much more about AMPK activation in the future—most likely in the promotion of drugs such as metformin, which also targets AMPK and is being studied as a treatment for a wide range of conditions.

I’ll put my money on berberine any day. Metformin may be the safest diabetes drug, but it still has a long list of side effects.

Most important, berberine does things that drug manufacturers only wish any single drug could do. In addition to the above benefits, studies demonstrate that berberine improves bone density and preserves cartilage, protects against acute brain damage and neurodegenerative disorders, and may play a role in warding off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. And because it mimics the effects of calorie restriction, I predict that berberine will be the next big thing in anti-aging.


  • Berberine is an excellent primary or adjunct therapy for diabetes, cardiovascular concerns, cancer and immune challenges, intestinal infections, and as an overall health supplement.
  • The usual dose is 500 mg 2–3 times a day. Although it is generally well tolerated, berberine can cause constipation, which usually clears up over time or with a reduction in dosage.
  • To order the brand we use at the clinic, call (800) 810-6655.


  • Tan W, et al. Anti-cancer natural products isolated from Chinese medicinal herbs. Chin Med. 2011 Jul;6(1):27.
  • Yin J, et al. Efficacy of berberine in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Metabolism. 2008 May;57(5):712–717.
  • Zhang Y, et al. Treatment of type 2 diabetes and dyslipidemia with the natural plant alkaloid berberine. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Jul;93(7):2559–2565.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.

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