What is berberine, the supplement dubbed ‘Nature’s Ozempic’ on social media?


A dietary supplement called berberine is gaining momentum on social media for its weight-loss effects, with some even calling it «Nature’s Ozempi,» a reference to the popular drug that can help people lose weight.

Users say that berberine, found in various plants including barberry plants, helps control appetite and improves blood sugar levels, resulting in weight loss. Google searches of “berberine” began to rise in late March before it spiked in late May.

A Chinese barberry plant. De Agostini via Getty Images

Berberine is gaining popularity as demand increases for drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy, known for their weight-loss effects.

Ozempic and Wegovy are part of a class of drugs called GLP-1 agonists, which mimic a hormone that helps reduce food intake and appetite. They are highly effective, but are in short supply in the US. They are also expensive (about $1,000 or more out of pocket) and must be prescribed by a doctor.

By comparison, berberine seems to be widely available online and is typically priced from $15-$40 for a month’s supply.

«You don’t have to deal with a doctor, and it will be a lot less expensive,» said Dr. Pieter Cohen, who researches supplement use at Cambridge Health Alliance in Somerville, Massachusetts. «So from an advertising perspective, it’s perfect.»

But that doesn’t mean berberine is effective or safe for weight loss. Here’s what you should know about it, including how well it works and whether it’s safe.

Is berberine useful 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 done on mice, not humans, experts say.

A meta-analysis of 49 studies published Last year in Frontiers in Nutrition, it was found that berberine may provide metabolic benefits in people, primarily for the heart, although there may be small benefits for weight loss.

«It’s not an average dramatic weight loss for berberine,» said Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine specialist and director of equity in the endocrine division at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Studies show it’s «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 the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t review or approve dietary supplements, they can be promoted with almost any health claim, Cohen said. Supplements may also contain inaccurate amounts of the compound or contain other ingredients that are not listed on the label.

“An active pharmaceutical drug like berberine, it’s not the kind of thing you should take lightly,” he said.

In addition, how, if at all, the supplement supports weight loss is largely unknown, Cohen said.

«People say it’s like metformin, but it’s not,» said Dr. Holly Lofton, director of NYU Langone Health’s weight management program, referring to a drug people with diabetes wear to lower your blood sugar levels. He said that he does not recommend berberine for weight loss.

Is berberine safe?

Plant-derived drugs are not uncommon, Cohen said. Highly effective drugs, such as aspirin and morphine, come from plants.

Known side effects of berberine in humans include nausea and vomiting, Stanford said. In animal studies, it seemed to enlarge the liver and kidney and reduce the number of infection-fighting white blood cells. Larger studies would be needed to find out if there are serious side effects in humans.

Stanford said that he would recommend speaking with a doctor before taking berberine as part of a weight loss regimen. It may not be safe for pregnant women, she added.

“These don’t go through any FDA approval or regulation,” he said. «You can work 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, he said.

Cohen said that despite the potential weight-loss benefits, «it’s not worth the risk.»

In fact, he said, if people experience weight loss using berberine, they should stop taking it immediately and talk to a doctor. “That could suggest that something is wrong with the product you are taking and you could be exposed to something that is more dangerous than berberine,” she said.Continue NBC HEALTH in Twitter & Facebook.

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