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Is Buzzy Berberine Really “Nature’s Ozempic”?

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July 10, 2024
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Since semaglutide medications like Ozempic and Wegovy can come with a high price tag and potential side effects, it makes sense that people are searching for a more “natural” alternative. One plant-based supplement that’s been generating buzz with the nickname “nature’s Ozempic”: berberine. Proponents say this supplement, which is relatively low in cost and available over the counter, can promote weight loss and blood sugar control.

But berberine is significantly different from Ozempic (and other, similar medications). Here’s what medical professionals say about who should and shouldn’t try berberine — and whether it lives up to the “alt-Ozempic” hype.

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What is berberine?

Though berberine comes from natural sources, it’s not quite what you’d call “food as medicine.” The active ingredient in the supplement is a chemical compound derived from a variety of shrubs, such as barberry, Oregon grape, tree turmeric, and goldthread. Once extracted, berberine is processed into a bright yellow powder that can be added to pills, capsules, teas, tinctures, and more. And while berberine is just now becoming a household name in the U.S., it’s been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years to treat infections, digestive conditions, and inflammatory disorders.

What are the benefits of taking berberine?

By now, research has shown that semaglutide meds are quite effective for managing blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. A recent study, for example, found that even a low dose helped people with  type 2 diabetes achieve significant reductions in blood sugar and body weight over 24 weeks of treatment. 

Still, “There are no available clinical trials that compare berberine and semaglutide head to head,” says obesity medicine physician Dr. Jennie Stanford, medical contributor at Drugwatch. 

Several studies have examined berberine as a standalone supplement for blood sugar management. A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis looked at the results of 46 studies and concluded that, alone or in conjunction with other therapies, berberine could be effective at reducing HbA1c, the standard measure of blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.  

But there are reasons to take research on berberine and blood sugar with a grain of salt. “Many of the studies have been done in Asian countries, used different formulations of berberine, and showed inconsistent results,” notes board certified obesity medicine physician Eleanor Yusupov, D.O., assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology’s medical school. 

Plus, unlike medications prescribed by your doctor, supplements are not strictly regulated and sometimes contain harmful impurities. “We would need additional, high-quality studies to be able to definitively recommend berberine,” Yusupov says.  

Can berberine help you lose weight?

Of course, semaglutides are in the spotlight not so much for blood sugar management as for weight loss. So, can berberine help you shed pounds as rapidly as meds like Ozempic and Wegovy?

The latest data on semaglutides indicates that a 2.4 milligram weekly dose of semaglutide achieves about 15% body weight loss in just over a year. As for berberine, Stanford notes that research has shown the supplement may lower waist circumference and promote loss of adipose (fat) tissue. Just like with blood sugar, though, researchers have yet to pinpoint an exact comparison of the weight loss impact of berberine versus semaglutides. “The amount of body weight reduction from berberine treatment is unclear, but it is likely to promote weight loss in patients with obesity,” Stanford says.

Meanwhile, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, even though a 2022 review of 18 studies found significant decreases in both weight and BMI in people who took berberine, that doesn’t mean it’s Ozempic 2.0. Experts at the NCCIH say many of the studies included in this review had a high risk of bias, and the outcomes of individual studies were inconsistent. Therefore, more high-quality research would be necessary to draw definite conclusions about berberine and weight. 

Related: Should You Try the Latest TikTok Weight Loss Trend: Ricewater?

Side effects of berberine

The supplement may be effective for blood sugar management and weight loss for some healthy adults, but some groups of people should be particularly careful to avoid it.

“Berberine can be harmful to newborns because of the possible buildup of bilirubin in the brain. Because of this, it should not be taken during pregnancy or breastfeeding due to possible harm to the baby,” says Yusupov. 

The supplement could also cause serious interactions with certain medications. “For example, someone with a history of kidney or other organ transplants taking cyclosporine should not take berberine,” she adds. 

Note, too, that berberine’s blood sugar-lowering effects could actually work too well for people already on meds that reduce blood glucose. “People with diabetes taking insulin or other medications to lower blood sugar should be careful to prevent blood sugar from dropping too low,” Yusupov says. 

Some people also experience unpleasant side effects from berberine. Stanford says the chemical compound in the supplement can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal upset — incidentally, a similar list of side effects to most semaglutides.

The takeaway

Berberine may not have the slam-dunk impact on weight loss and blood sugar of prescription drugs, but with its lower price and wider availability, it may be worth a try. As with any supplement, talk to your health care provider before taking berberine. Remember that there are no shortcuts: Lifestyle habits such as eating whole foods, getting plenty of sleep, managing stress, and moving throughout the day are the healthiest and most reliable pathways to good health. 

Read next: 7 Healthy Lifestyle Habits That Can Boost Weight Loss

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