For many people, a healthy lifestyle means more than eating a good diet and getting enough exercise — vitamins, supplements, and complementary nutritional products are also part of the plan. Supplements, which are not held to the same federal approval standards as over-the-counter and prescription drugs, despite their widespread use, contain active ingredients that can have strong effects on the body, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements explains. And in some products, these ingredients can be particularly potent.
However, despite the publicity about their potential benefits, there is less awareness of their possible harmful effects. In fact, using these products can land you in the emergency department. A study published today in The New England Journal of Medicine found that adverse effects of supplements were responsible for an average of about 23,000 emergency department (ED) visits per year. That’s a lot for something that is supposed to be good for you.
What is berberine?
Berberine is an alkaloid derivative and was first isolated in 1917 from goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), also called yellowroot. Goldenseal is an herb of the buttercup family and found in North America. However, when people take goldenseal by mouth very little berberine is absorbed into the bloodstream so study results on berberine may not apply to goldenseal, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
The compound berberine is also found in other plants, such as barberry (Berberis vulgaris L.) and the Amur cork tree (in East Asia). It has a bitter taste and bright yellow color.
More recently, berberine has gained a foothold in the U.S. in powder or capsule form available for purchase online and in health stores.
Berberine supplements have attracted online attention lately, claiming the compound is a viable treatment for high cholesterol or high blood pressure and can reduce glucose levels for those with Type 2 diabetes. Some claim the benefits are comparable to pharmaceutical medications like the blood sugar-lowering drug metformin. Others take it further, asserting the research has concluded that berberine is a good treatment option to try before insulin therapy and may offer better results than metformin.
Based on the attention it’s been getting recently, it may seem like berberine just crashed onto the supplement scene. But it’s far from new. Typically used in traditional Chinese medicine, the natural supplement is a yellow compound found in the roots, rhizomes, and stem barks of many plant species, including goldthread, Oregon grape, and barberry.
Berberine supplements have a cholesterol-lowering effect, which may help prevent heart disease. And it has the potential to help lower blood sugar, which may help prevent type 2 diabetes and manage other types of diabetes.
Berberine may even help fight cancer, improve symptoms of ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, and more.
Berberine Side Effects
Berberine is safe to take because it appears to have low toxicity at normal doses. The common side effects of berberine include:
- Stomach pain
- Gas and nausea
- Muscle aches
- Allergic reactions
Taking berberine can also pose serious health risks for the following group of people:
Pregnant or breastfeeding women: Berberine can cross the placenta and may cause harm to the fetus. Kernicterus, a type of brain damage, has developed in newborn infants exposed to it. It’s unsafe to take berberine if you are breastfeeding, as it can be transferred to the infant through breast milk.
Newborns and children: Do not give berberine to newborns due to kernicterus risk (as mentioned previously) that can occur in newborns who have severe jaundice. The information we have is not enough to know if it’s safe in older children.
Those on prescription medication: Berberine can interact with prescription medications and increase or decrease levels of these medicines in the blood due to its effects on specific enzymes in the blood. This is especially true of drugs like metformin metabolized by the liver. There may also be an increased risk of bleeding.
If you have diabetes and are on medications to lower your blood sugar, berberine could further lower blood glucose levels and lead to potential hypoglycemia, which can be dangerous.