A dietary supplement called berberine is gaining momentum on social media for its weight loss effects, though some are calling it natures Ozempic, in reference to the popular drug that can help people lose weight.
Users claim that berberine, which is found in a number of plants, including barberry plants, helps curb appetite and improve blood sugar levels, resulting in weight loss. Google searches for berberine started picking up in late March before peaking in late May.
Berberine is growing in popularity as the demand for drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy, which are known for their weight-loss effects, increases.
Ozempic and Wegovy are in a class of drugs called GLP-1 agonists, which mimic a hormone that helps reduce food intake and appetite. They are very effective, but are in short supply in the United States. They also cost about $1,000 or more out of pocket and must be prescribed by a doctor.
By comparison, berberine appears to be widely available online and is usually priced between $15 and $40 for a monthly supply.
“You don’t have to deal with a doctor and it will be much less expensive,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, who researches supplement use at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Somerville, Massachusetts. So from an advertising point of view, it’s perfect.
But that doesn’t mean berberine is effective or safe for weight loss. Here’s what to know about it, including how it works and if it’s safe.
Does berberine work for weight loss?
Many of the claims about berberine have not been verified by large peer-reviewed studies, and most of the research has been conducted in mice, not humans, experts say.
A meta-analysis of 49 studies published last year in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition found that berberine may provide metabolic benefits in people, primarily for the heart, although there may be small benefits for weight loss.
That’s not a dramatic weight loss average for berberine, said Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine specialist and stocks director of the endocrine division at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Studies show it to be between a quarter of a BMI point and a BMI point, which is nowhere near what you see on average with semaglutide, she said, referring to the drug found in Ozempic. Stanford was not involved in the research.
For people in those studies, the optimal dose appeared to be 1 gram per day, Stanford said.
Cohen was more cautious about using the compound for weight loss.
Because dietary supplements aren’t reviewed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration, they can be promoted for nearly any health claim, Cohen said. Supplements may also contain inaccurate amounts of the compound or contain other ingredients that aren’t listed on the label.
An active pharmaceutical drug like berberine, is not the sort of thing you should be taking willy-nilly, she said.
Additionally, how the supplement supports weight loss, if at all, is largely unknown, Cohen said.
People say it’s like metformin, but it’s not, said Dr. Holly Lofton, director of the weight management program at NYU Langone Health, referring to a drug people with diabetes use to lower sugar levels in the blood. She said she is not recommending berberine for weight loss.
Is berberine safe?
Plant-derived drugs are not effectivet rare, said Cohen. Highly effective drugs, including aspirin and morphine, come from plants.
Known side effects of berberine in humans include nausea and vomiting, Stanford said. In animal studies, it appeared to enlarge the liver and kidney and reduce the number of white blood cells, which fight infection. Larger studies should be done to know if there are any serious side effects in humans.
Stanford said it would recommend talking to a doctor before taking berberine as part of a weight-loss regimen. He may not be safe for pregnant women, he added.
These don’t go through any FDA approval or regulation, he said. You may be working with someone who has some knowledge, whether it’s a doctor or a naturopathic doctor.
If there are any side effects, stop taking the drug, she said.
Cohen said that despite the potential weight-loss benefits, it’s not worth the risk.
In fact, she said, if people experience weight loss using berberine, they should stop taking it immediately and speak to a doctor. That could suggest something is wrong with the product you’re taking and you may be exposed to something more dangerous than berberine, she said.FollowNBC HEALTHCAREONChirping&Facebook.
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