Overweight and obesity have increased chronic disease morbidity and mortality rates worldwide.
Since the early 2000’s, these disorders have affected around 1.5 billion adults across the globe.
By 2013, the numbers of affected people have grown to a shocking 2 billion despite multifaceted worldwide approaches to limit their growth.
A physically inactive lifestyle accompanied by the indiscriminate consumption of high-fat foods are the main reasons behind excess body fat.
Therefore, most weight-loss byines endeavor to bring about a caloric deficit (negative energy balance) by coordinating high-intensity strength and cardio exercises that expend calories with low-calorie diets.
Studies have shown that certain phytochemicals such as berberine optimize weight loss by reducing the differentiation of fat cells and lowering cholesterol levels.
Before we explore the various benefits, let us learn more about berberine.
What is Berberine?
Berberine is a bioactive compound that can be extracted from the roots, rhizomes or rootstocks, stems, and bark of plants typically belonging to the genus Berberis.
These include barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and tree turmeric (Berberis aristata).
Plants belonging to some related genera also produce berberine such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), and Chinese goldthread (Coptis chinensis).
Biochemically, it belongs to a class of naturally occurring compounds known as alkaloids, particularly benzylisoquinoline alkaloids.
On account of being an alkaloid, it evokes a bitter taste.
Berberine is also characterized by its strong yellow colour and therefore has been used as a dye in the wool, leather, and wood industries.
It is also used for histological (tissue-related) staining.
Berberine has been a part of traditional Chinese medicine since 3000 BC and was used to treat several ailments and disorders.
Being an alkaloid, it has several pharmacological activities, some of which have been confirmed by modern science.
It has exhibited anticancer, antiarrhythmic, anti-hyperglycemic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-hyperlipidemic activities.
These multifarious benefits are linked to its mode of action which is similar to that of many commercially available pharmaceutical drugs.
After being ingested, berberine gets transported to different body cells via the bloodstream.
It then exerts its action by binding to specific target molecules and changing their biological functions.
Berberine has been found to reduce blood sugar levels and have an overall anti-obesity effect.
This is because it activates the enzyme, AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which is known as the metabolic master switch.
This enzyme is found in the liver, kidney, heart, muscle and even in the brain and plays a major role in modulating the metabolism.
Berberine Benefits for Weight Loss
The major benefits of berberine supplementation are linked to its nature as an alkaloid with several significant pharmacological activities.
It has been known to exert an anti-hyperlipidemic activity by stimulating the release of fat-regulating hormones like adiponectin. It is also known to lower cholesterol levels. Berberine supplementation has an overall effect on the body mass which is reflected by its drastic lowering of the body mass index.
Berberine also exhibits an anti-hyperglycemic effect due to which it improves the response of body cells to the signals of the hormone, insulin.
This facilitates glucose uptake, thereby, lowering diabetes and abdominal obesity. It also promotes fatty acid oxidation by promoting liver health.
1. Berberine Affects Adipocyte Differentiation
Adipocytes or fat cells store fat following the breakdown of triacylglycerols.
These adipocytes collectively form the dynamic adipose tissue which exerts an endocrine effect by secreting several important hormones that regulate the basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Barring adipocytes, the tissue is also made of endothelial cells, blood cells, and fat cell precursors.
The maturation and differentiation of adipocytes from precursor cells are known as adipogenesis. Dedicated preadipocytes finish growth and terminally differentiate adipocytes.
This is followed by an increase in the synthesis of several adipocyte fatty acid binding protein and lipid-metabolizing enzymes. Adipocyte differentiation can continue for life depending upon the need for fat storage.
Metabolically active adipose tissue produces several bioactive molecules known as adipocytokines/adipokines.
Some of these substances are inflammatory like tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) or plasminogen activator inhibitor- 1 (PAI-1) whereas others are beneficial and needed to check adipogenesis such as adiponectin and leptin.
A review by the Tokyo Medical and Dental University has classified obesity as a systemic inflammation which is caused by hypersecretion of inflammatory adipokines.
It mentioned that combating abdominal obesity can reduce inflammation.
A study at the Shanghai Second Medical University investigated the effects of berberine on adipocyte proliferation and revealed that the alkaloid prevented the terminal differentiation of precursors and thereby inhibited adipose tissue development.
Another study showed that berberine supplementation improved the secretion of fat-regulating adipokines like adiponectin.
What does it mean? Berberine supplements help in reducing the proliferation of adipocytes by preventing terminal differentiation into mature fat cells.
2. Berberine Lowers the Body Mass Index
The body mass index (BMI) or Quetelet index is a value that is obtained by considering the overall mass and height of an individual.
It is usually derived by dividing the body mass by the square of the height and is expressed in kg/m2 as the mass was measured in kilograms and the height in meters.
The BMI serves as a guide to provide a measure of the tissue mass (fat, muscle, or bone) in an individual.
It then categorizes people into different groups classifying them as underweight (BMI<18.5), normal weight (18.5-25.0), overweight (25.0-29.9), and obese (BMI>30). Major health risks like diabetes and hypertension are usually associated with individuals with higher BMIs.
BMI has been generally used to find parallels in a group of individuals with similar body weights and has, therefore, served as a rough parameter to estimate the adiposity or fatness.
The index is suitable for identifying trends, acting as a marker to predict the risk of developing obesity in overweight individuals. The World Health Organization (WHO) has used BMI as a guide to record worldwide obesity statistics since the 1980’s.
While higher BMIs are associated with increased disease morbidity and mortality rates, healthy BMIs are linked with improved life-expectancies.
A multi-cohort study undertaken in Europe showed that individuals with BMIs within the normal range had longer healthy and chronic disease-free life expectancies, particularly between the ages of 50-75.
Hence, lowering the BMI and maintaining it within the normal range will inevitably be accompanied by weight loss.
A 2012 study by researchers at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital showed that participants recorded a drop in their BMIs (from 31.5 to 27.4) after being on berberine supplementation for a period of three months.
What does it mean? As berberine supplementation helps in lowering BMIs, consumption of this alkaloid will help in losing belly fat and several other markers of obesity. As the overall body mass is reduced, loss of weight occurs.
3. Berberine Reduces Blood Glucose Levels
The chief energy source of the body is the simple sugar, glucose, which contributes to 60% of the brain’s energy. Foods rich in carbohydrates such as sweet fruits, cereal grains, and starchy vegetables act as the principal dietary sources of glucose.
They are metabolized and broken down to glucose. As a result, the blood glucose level is raised.
The blood glucose level provides an insight into the amount of glucose present in the bloodstream at a particular time.
Once the energy demands are realized, the excess blood glucose gets stored as the polymer, glycogen, in the muscle tissues and the liver.
In order to maintain a stable internal environment or homeostasis, the blood glucose level is strictly monitored and regulated.
The pancreatic hormone, insulin, is responsible for maintaining the homeostatic balance of blood glucose. It facilitates glucose uptake by the liver, the muscle tissue, and fat cells to generate energy as well as for storage as glycogen.
A persistently high level of blood glucose is known as hyperglycemia. When this condition becomes consistent, diabetes mellitus (DM) is developed.
The two types include insulin-dependent diabetes or Type 1 DM and insulin resistant diabetes or Type 2 DM. These conditions are triggered due to a gradual malfunction of blood glucose regulation.
Abdominal obesity is a major risk factor for T2DM because excess belly fat reduces the sensitivity of cells to respond to the hormonal signals.
A review by researchers at the University of Manitoba has established that berberine can be used as a therapeutic measure to treat diabetes.
Berberine decreases insulin resistance and also enhances glycolysis, thus helping to break down sugars inside the tissues.
A 2008 study at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine showed that ingestion of 1g of berberine per day reduced the fasting blood sugar level by 20%, from diabetic to normal levels.
What does it mean? As berberine supplementation lower blood glucose levels to the normal range, consumption of this alkaloid will help in treating diabetes. Subsequently, weight loss will occur due to a reduction in abdominal obesity.
4. Berberine Lowers LDL- Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that acts as the precursor to certain steroid hormones, vitamins, and bile salts.
Majority of the cholesterol is produced in the body by the hepatocytes (liver cells) and the residual amount is obtained through fatty food.
There are two types: low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C).
Barring the fat mass, the type and amount of cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream also act as biomarkers for the development of obesity.
Studies have revealed that exorbitant LDL-C levels are linked with a plethora of as LDL-C deposits as plaque in the arterial walls leading to heart attack or stroke.
It helps in increasing the adiposity of the body. Hence, it is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol.
A 2013 meta-analysis showed that the excessive consumption of high-fat foods raises the LDL-C levels.
In fact, frequently eating processed meat and dairy products increased the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), particularly coronary artery disease (CAD). Obesity was linked to CVD due to increased LDL-C levels.
Arterial damage is further worsened by the oxidation of LDL-C which stimulates the build-up of arterial plaque. Oxidative stress has been linked with the accelerated deposition of oxidized LDL-C in the arteries which restricts blood flow.
A 2013 meta-analysis of randomized trials by the Tongji Hospital investigated the effect of berberine on blood lipid profiles.
It found that berberine reduces plaque formation as it lowers the levels of total cholesterol, particularly LDL-C.
Another study by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences showed that the antioxidant activity of berberine helped in lowering oxidative damage to the arteries.
What does it mean? Berberine supplementation helps in reducing LDL-C levels. As it lowers the accumulation of excess body fat, increasing the daily consumption of this alkaloid will help in losing weight.
5. Berberine Promotes Liver Health
The liver is an organ which is involved in several daily functions to maintain the overall health and well-being of the individual.
It primarily synthesizes many substances required for digestion, breaks down and detoxifies metabolites, and acts as storage for energy needs.
The hepatocytes or liver cells are involved in protein synthesis, including the blood clotting factors.
The liver is also involved in the metabolism of cholesterol and triglycerides as it synthesizes these molecules and also breaks them down to form bile salts which are involved in the digestion of lipids.
Oxidation of fats for energy occurs in the liver and, hence, it plays a major role in fat metabolism.
The liver also helps in the removal of several lipophilic toxins which result in the increase of adipose tissue that develops as a protective measure.
Hence, proper functioning of the liver is imperative to maintaining healthy body weight and disorders such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is considered to be a risk factor for developing obesity.
NAFLD has emerged as significant public health menace because of its pervasive nature, likely advance to chronic liver diseases, and association with life-threatening cardiometabolic disorders such as T2DM and coronary heart disease (CHD).
A randomized clinical trial was conducted at three medical centres in China to evaluate the effect of berberine on NAFLD.
The results revealed that berberine supplementation helped in improving lipid profiles and reducing the damage caused by NAFLD by lowering the hepatic fat content.
The results also showed that the participants, on berberine, recorded loss of weight and improved blood glucose levels.
What does it mean? By reducing the hepatic fat content, berberine helps in ameliorating NAFLD which is marked by a noted beneficial effect on the liver. Normal liver functioning is resumed which helps in metabolizing fat for energy. This helps in lowering body fat and helps in losing weight.
Dosage for Weight Loss
There is no prescribed dosage of berberine for weight loss.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for berberine is usually 500mg taken 2-3 times daily for a continuous period of 3 months.
This dosage has been reported to lower blood glucose levels and LDL-C levels which ultimately help in decreasing body fat.
While it can be naturally ingested via herbs such as goldenseal, Oregon grape, and tree turmeric, supplements in the form of pills and tablets are found to be more effective.
Overall, berberine is quite safe to consume and does not have harmful side-effects.
However, a medical practitioner should be consulted before using berberine for weight loss as it is known to interact with other drugs.
Berberine should not be consumed in combination with drugs such as glimepiride and glyburide which are used to treat diabetes as it might lead to an extreme dip in blood glucose levels.
It should also be avoided if patients are under blood pressure medication such as captopril, losartan, or amlodipine as the combination might cause the blood pressure to fall too low.
Other side effects of berberine are mostly related to digestion and there have been some recorded cases of diarrhoea, flatulence, constipation, and stomach cramps.
Berberine should be avoided by pregnant women as it can cross the placental barrier and harm the foetus.
In fact, infants exposed to this alkaloid tend to develop kernicterus, a type of brain damage caused by high bilirubin levels in the blood (neonatal jaundice).
It is for the same reason that lactating mothers should avoid berberine to lose postpartum weight as it can be transferred via breast-milk and affect the child.
In the end..
In conclusion, it can be said that the alkaloid, berberine, improve the health of obese and overweight individuals by helping in weight loss.
Because of its anti-hyperlipidemic nature, it helps in preventing the terminal differentiation of preadipocytes into mature fat cells. This helps in lowering the adiposity or fatness.
This effect is also exerted by lowering the levels of LDL-cholesterol. It also lowers oxidative damage to the arteries by acting as an antioxidant.
Its anti-obesity effects are reflected by the fact that it helps in reducing the BMI, a marker of obesity. Berberine also exerts an anti-diabetic effect by reducing blood glucose levels as it improves cellular response to insulin which facilitates glucose uptake.
As a result, diabetes-related abdominal obesity is overcome and weight loss is achieved.