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Berberine (BBR) is a beneficial alkaloid found in the roots, rhizomes, and stem barks of some plants, such as goldenseal. Traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Native American healers used plants containing BBR in their medicinal treatments for more than 2500 years. A large number of research studies show that BBR may offer valuable health properties for certain conditions, including diabetes.

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Berberine’s Benefits

Bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals produce alkaloids, which are natural compounds. They have diverse physiological effects on humans and animals, and pharmaceutical companies use them as an ingredient in medications. People who purchase dietary supplements containing berberine use them for treating respiratory infections, influenza, and fever. Throughout history into modern times, naturopathic physicians and healers have prescribed BBR for the treatment of a wide array of disorders and conditions, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, immune system diseases, central nervous disorders, inflammation, skin diseases, and diarrhea.

mahonia flowers berberine Animaflora / Getty Images
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Plants That Contain BBR

Scientists have identified thousands of alkaloids from different plant species, especially in flowering plants like the poppy family. Berberine is a yellow-colored, bitter alkaloid. Its primary natural source is plants in the genus Berberis, which consists of 450 to 500 species. Several plants contain BBR, including goldenseal, Chinese and American goldthread, Oregon grape, phellodendron, European and Japanese barberry, and tree turmeric.

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Berberine Requires Big Doses

To achieve therapeutic effects, a person must take large doses of berberine. Not only does BBR have poor solubility, but it also must pass through the intestinal wall to reach the circulatory system; the wall automatically expels it due to the presence of P-glycoprotein in the human intestines. Once berberine gets through, however, gut processes convert it to a more easily soluble derivative called dihydroberberine (dhBBR).

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Berberine as a Blood Sugar Regulator

Diabetes is a chronic and progressive metabolic disorder and one of the most common health concerns today. According to research, BBR reduces blood sugar levels for people with diabetes and is one of the more effective supplements doctors and natural medicine proponents recommend for that purpose. Regular intake of two to three daily doses may control blood sugar as effectively as standard medications in people with mild type 2 diabetes.

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Berberine as a Treatment for Cardiovascular Disease

Atherosclerosis, hypertension, cardiac hypertrophy, and heart failure are common cardiovascular diseases with high mortality rates. Physicians in Asian countries often prescribe berberine to treat cardiovascular diseases and high cholesterol levels due to the possible adverse effects of mainstream drug treatments. Although BBR concentrations are low in plasma, levels remain high in the body’s tissues. This allows the body to distribute BBR more effectively to places like the heart. Some studies also show that combining berberine with blood pressure medications lowers blood pressure more than the medication alone. However, berberine is not a proven treatment for cardiovascular disease, and anyone with a heart condition should follow the advice of their doctor.

doctor patient heart model Steve Debenport / Getty Images

Berberine and Its Effects on Cancer

Extensive research shows that berberine can effectively inhibit cell proliferation in cancer cells. Additionally, BBR regulates cell cycles and helps clean out damaged cells. It is also a much cheaper alternative than the suppressant drugs doctors use for tumor immunotherapy, a popular type of oncological treatment. Animal studies also indicate that BBR has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In humans, berberine is not yet proven to be effective for treating or preventing cancer, and more research is needed.

doctor cancer patient discussion FatCamera / Getty Images

Other Treatments

For centuries, traditional practitioners have used berberine to treat skin diseases, heal wounds, cure eye infections, address digestive ailments, and get rid of infections. Modern research shows that gel forms of berberine are effective in reducing canker sore size, redness, oozing, and pain. Additional studies show that it is a possible treatment for infections of the urinary tract, as well as metabolic diseases such as obesity and fatty liver disease.

berberine may alleviate digestive pain

Toxicological Effects

Berberine belongs to a family of alkaloids that also exhibit acidic properties. Studies show that in some cases, berberine can lead to cell toxicity and influence DNA synthesis in a harmful way. Medical professionals do not recommend berberine for pregnant or breastfeeding women or infants due to a risk of kernicterus, a type of brain damage resulting from high levels of bilirubin. This condition has occurred in infants after exposure to berberine.

Berberine can harm DNA synthesis

Where to Obtain Berberine

Berberine is available as plant-based, over-the-counter dietary supplements, tinctures, gels, and astringents. In some cases, a physician may prescribe them as part of a treatment plan. People can also grow plants containing BBR in their gardens. Goldenseal, phellodendron, and Oregon grape plants are just a few of the berberine-rich options. However, plant experts recommend against attempts to grow European or Japanese barberry plants due to their invasive nature. In some areas, local governments have banned these plants.

blooming berberis plants katoosha / Getty Images

Endangered BBR Plants

Because berberine offers so many health benefits, botanists and natural medicine proponents voice concerns that naturally growing plants containing BBR could become endangered or threatened due to loss of habitat. Officials in Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Vermont have declared goldenseal an endangered plant species. Several other states have labeled it as threatened. For this reason, experts urge people not to harvest plants in the wild to obtain BBR.

goldenseal plant endangered flower bkkm / Getty Images

Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.