Another day, another TikTok trend. But the latest obsession to hit the platform is a little more dangerous than the typical viral dances and makeup looks. Lately, berberine supplements have been getting a lot of attention, but for some iffy reasons. Users have nicknamed the ingredient “nature’s Ozempic,” claiming it can help people lose weight. Let’s unpack.
First off, berberine is nothing new. It’s a botanical compound used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for its medicinal properties, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center reports. It’s thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic effects, says Michelle Pearlman, MD, an internal medicine physician who is board certified in gastroenterology and obesity medicine and the CEO and cofounder of Prime Institute.
That last part is where the Ozempic connection comes from. Ozempic, which has gone viral in its own right, is a drug intended to treat type 2 diabetes — though these days, it’s more well-known for its weight-loss properties. (Find more on whether it should really be used for weight loss here.) And studies have looked into berberine’s ability to improve blood sugar control and insulin resistance, as well as its effectiveness at appetite suppression.
But considering berberine a natural form of Ozempic is still a pretty major leap. For one, “there’s a lack of data evaluating [berberine’s] role in weight loss and its potential effects on natural satiety signals and reward centers in the brain that regulate appetite and cravings,” Dr. Pearlman says. Plus, there are some big problems with promoting anything as a magic pill for weight loss — Ozempic, berberine, or otherwise.
Here’s what you need to know about what berberine is, whether using berberine for weight loss is safe or effective, and the side effects of berberine, according to doctors.
What Is Berberine?
Berberine is a nitrogen-containing organic compound called an alkaloid, says Christopher Hollingsworth, MD, a board-certified general surgeon. It’s typically found in plants of the barberry family, which are common to Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Central and North America, he explains.
In supplement form, it’s most often seen as pills or capsules, but you can sometimes find berberine tea, Dr. Pearlman notes.
What Is Berberine Used For?
Berberine has historically been associated with various health benefits, ranging from potential anti-cancer properties to improved digestion, cardiovascular health, and positive effects on certain neurological conditions, Dr. Pearlman says. “Research also suggests that berberine, both alone and in combination with anti-diabetic medications, may lead to significant reductions in blood sugar levels, improved insulin resistance, better lipid profiles, and decreased systemic inflammation.”
Berberine has been used to treat obesity, metabolic disorder, pre-diabetes, and diabetes too, Dr. Hollingsworth says. But touting berberine as a magic weight-loss pill is an oversimplification at best.
Can Berberine Be Used For Weight Loss?
The jury’s still out. TikTok will often point to studies that “prove” that berberine can promote weight loss or suppress the appetite. But most of these studies were conducted on mice or in test tubes, Dr. Hollingsworth and Dr. Pearlman say.
Animal and clinical trials can tell us that something may be worth studying more — but we can’t say for sure that what works in mice will work in humans. We also don’t know the long-term effects berberine has on blood sugar (or the body), or exactly what the right dosing would be, Dr. Pearlman says.
In other words, significantly more human research is needed before anyone can say for sure that taking berberine supplements could help people shed pounds, Dr. Hollingsworth says.
What’s more, berberine is poorly absorbed when taken orally since the intestine prevents the compound from easily passing through, Dr. Hollingsworth says. “Researchers have been trying various nanoparticle formulations to sneak the compound past the intestine, but I don’t know of any product that uses this technology that is currently available,” he says. So whether you’re actually absorbing enough berberine from supplements and teas to have any effect is up in the air.
What Are the Side Effects of Berberine?
The side effects of berberine are generally minimal, according to Dr. Hollingsworth. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation are most common, he says.
But you should always consult with a doctor before taking berberine supplements, since they can negatively react with certain medications, Dr. Hollingsworth says. In particular, berberine is noted to potentially lower blood sugar, and if you’re already taking glucose-lowering medications, this can be extremely dangerous.
Berberine may also negatively impact unknown underlying health conditions, and it’s unclear whether the substance is safe to take while pregnant or breastfeeding, so discussing with a physician before starting the supplement is a must.
Additionally, unlike medications, supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and therefore do not undergo the same rigorous safety and efficacy studies before approval, Dr. Pearlman says. “Consequently, supplements are not adequately regulated, often containing undisclosed ingredients, varying dosages, potential medication interactions, and severe side effects, including cases of liver failure,” she says. That’s another reason it’s best to work with a doctor, who can both let you know if it’s safe for you to be taking the supplement and give you a recommendation for a good brand.
Is Berberine For Weight Loss Safe?
If you and your doctor have agreed that you want to lose weight, and they’ve recommended adding a specific berberine supplement to your routine, it’s possible that it might have some effect. “The physiology of weight loss involves nutrition, hormones, and metabolism, and these systems are connected and interdependent,” Dr. Hollingsworth says.
But berberine is not a quick-fix weight-loss pill, and blindly taking a supplement in the hopes of shedding pounds is not a good idea, Dr. Pearlman says. For one, it might not work — or it might harm your health. But for another, it promotes a “lose weight fast” mentality that can be downright harmful. All told, this is one TikTok trend you might want to sit out.
Image Source: Photo Illustration by Becky Jiras