Patients already understand that carrying excess weight has health consequences, including increased risk of diabetes, coronary heart disease, and even depression. At the same time, overweight people often struggle with lower self-esteem thanks to the stigmatization of their weight, further exacerbating some comorbidities. Unfortunately, many patients have difficulties implementing effective weight loss plans and feel alone in their efforts thanks to limited participation by their medical practitioners. Indeed, clinicians have long advised their patients to keep their weight under control, yet most remain powerless outside of offering advice to patients, particularly as few clinicians are willing to prescribe the pharmaceutical weight loss offerings.
For patients who need an extra edge in their weight loss efforts, adding on a specialized weight loss supplement might be the answer. Historically, supplements that claim to aid weight loss have overwhelmingly been ineffective or unsafe—and sometimes both. Now, however, research suggests that there may be a powerful supplement that can give patients real results: berberine. In conjunction with dieting and exercise, berberine could help patients achieve safe rates of weight loss when they might not be otherwise able to.
Exploring How Berberine Enhances Weight Loss1 Historically, berberine has been used as a pigment and as a curative in Chinese traditional medicine. More recently, however, scientific interest into berberine has revealed a handful of potential clinical applications, including weight loss.
Berberine’s primary appeal as a weight loss supplement stems from its ability to make production of cellular energy less efficient.2 Lay readers may assume that a reduction in efficiency is dangerous or unhealthy but in reality, the opposite may be the case. When cells can produce their cellular energy in a highly efficient way, a higher percentage of nutrients are turned into energy. This provides them with more chemical energy than they may need to perform their physiological function. Cells consolidate this excess energy into adipocytes, also known as fat cells.
Reducing the efficiency of the production of cellular energy thus leads to a smaller balance of energy beyond that which the cell needs. In other words, there is less excess chemical energy which gets converted into fat. When used in conjunction with dieting and exercise, the inefficiency induced by berberine might be a powerful aid to weight loss by reducing the threshold of other actions needed for cells to run a negative balance of energy; when cells have a negative balance of chemical energy, the body releases stored energy within fat cells so that they can continue to function.
Calorie reduction and exercise both contribute to this negative energy balance, but the way that berberine lowers the efficiency of energy production is unique. Within cells, the organelle known as the mitochondria is responsible for synthesizing chemical energy from nutrients. Berberine infiltrates the mitochondria and once there, inhibits the chain of chemical reactions responsible for generating chemical energy.3Notably, it doesn’t inhibit these reactions permanently or heavily, which would be dangerous or fatal. Instead, berberine only slightly inhibits the energy production process, allowing it to continue while slowing the maximum rate of nutrient conversion into energy. As the cell must work longer to synthesize the same amount of energy, the effect leads to weight loss if continued at an energy deficit for a long enough period of time. As such, berberine may be used safely while still maintaining efficacy.
How Effective is Berberine for Weight Loss?
Berberine has already passed a handful of important demonstrations of efficacy. In 2012, for example, one study showed that obese human patients lost an average of 5 lbs over the 12-week course of treatment.4 While these results may seem modest, there’s more to the story. Significantly, the patients in the trial experienced a 23% drop in their soluble triglyceride levels and a 12.2% drop in their cholesterol levels beyond what would be expected from weight loss alone. This means that berberine helped the patients lose weight while simultaneously reducing the harmful chemical correlates of being overweight; high triglyceride and cholesterol levels are associated with many of the negative health outcomes of being overweight. As such, berberine provided valuable protection of overall health.
Another 2012 study investigating the impact of berberine on weight loss in obese patients with metabolic syndromes produced similarly promising results.5 In this study, those who took berberine lost an average of 4 kilograms more than the patients who consumed a placebo. After examining the fat cells of the study participants under the microscope, researchers also found that fewer of their fat cells appeared to be prediabetic. While the significance of this result is still unclear, it does suggest that patients who are classified as prediabetic may experience particularly powerful benefits from berberine. Like in the other clinical trial of berberine, over the study’s 12-week berberine administration period, patients reported no major side effects.
Using Berberine Safely
While berberine is known to be well-tolerated, patients should still exercise caution when using it for weight loss, particularly if they have liver issues. This is because berberine inhibits the mitochondria’s production of energy and may lead to cells needing more energy than they have on hand. For most cells, the additional breakdown of fat makes up the difference and allows the cells to continue with their normal activities; fat cells convert their stored energy into a usable format and ensure that other cells have access. However, some types of cells have restricted access to nearby energy reserves.
In particular, liver cells are kept without any fatty deposits nearby, as these deposits can themselves interfere with cellular functioning. This means that when berberine reduces the mitochondria’s ability to produce energy, liver cells may not be able to get the energy that they need via fat liquidation. While these cells can still get enough energy to survive via the bloodstream, their function may be inhibited. As the liver cells are responsible for purifying the blood of toxins, they may become overwhelmed if they face a higher load of toxins than they can purify in their newly-inhibited state. More importantly, berberine directly inhibits certain critical liver cell enzymes responsible for processing most pharmaceutical drugs. When these liver enzymes are inhibited, the presence of certain drugs in the patient’s system may be perpetuated. While many drugs have similar impacts on liver enzymes, this does mean that patients who have liver issues may want to approach berberine with caution. Regular blood testing of liver enzymes can help ensure that patients remain in good health. Currently, data suggests that berberine is completely safe to use for up to 12 weeks.
Benefiting from Berberine Todayreduce their level of insulin resistance. Likewise, researchers have suggested that patients who have metabolic disorders could also benefit from the gentle tuning effect that stands in contrast to the harsh impact of many other weight loss supplements. However, berberine may benefit even those without pre-existing health concerns who are looking to lose weight and stay healthy.
Of course, patients who are interested in using berberine should be aware that it is not a unitary weight loss solution. The human studies into the efficacy of berberine did not use berberine in isolation, but rather as one element of a holistic weight loss program which included dietary adjustments and exercise. Indeed, patients are unlikely to see any weight loss results if they take berberine alone without adjusting any of their habits; it can help create a calorie deficit, but it cannot create one alone. But berberine will likely provide an additional edge to patients who are already engaged in weight loss programs.
For those who are interested in using berberine for weight loss, it is important to work with a clinician who can help patients implement a healthy weight loss plan. By combining a high-quality berberine supplement with positive lifestyle changes, it may be possible to finally achieve the weight loss results patients are looking for, enhance physical and emotional health, and improve overall quality of life.
- Imanshahidi M, and Hosseinzadeh H. 2008. Pharmacological and therapeutic effects of Berberis vulgaris and its active constituent, berberine. Phytotherapy. 22(8). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ptr.2399
- Lee YS, Kim WS, Kim KH, Yoon MJ, Cho HJ, et al. 2006. Berberine, a natural plant product, activates AMP-activated protein kinase with beneficial metabolic effects in diabetic and insulin-resistant states. Diabetes. 55(8):2256-2264. http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/55/8/2256.short
- Turner N, Li JY, Gosby A, To SWC, Cheng Z, et al. 2008. Berberine and its more biologically available derivative, dihydroberberine, inhibit mitochondrial respiratory complex I.
Diabetes. 57(5):1414-1418. http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/57/5/1414.short
- Hu Y, Ehli EA, Kittelsrud J, Ronan PJ, Munger K, et al. 2012. Lipid-lowering effect of berberine in human subjects and rats. Phytomedicine. 19(10):861-867. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0944711312001870
- Yang J, Yin J, Gao H, Xu L, Wang Y, et al. 2012. Berberine improves insulin sensitivity by inhibiting fat store and adjusting adipokines profile in human preadipocytes and metabolic syndrome patients. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2012/363845/abs/