Ozempic, a medication used to treat diabetes, caught the attention of celebrities, social media influencers and the general public for its off-label use for treating obesity and helping with weight loss. Now, a new dietary supplement has taken over social media platforms, like TikTok, for similar qualities.
Berberine, labeled as “nature’s Ozempic,” has been deemed a cheaper and easier accessible alternative to the popular drug.
Like Ozempic, berberine is commonly used to lower blood glucose levels to treat type 2 diabetes. The herbal medicine can also be used for neurological, metabolic and cardiovascular disorders, deriving from Chinese medicine and plants like Caplis chinensis. Ozempic, which has to be prescribed by a physician, can cost over $900. Instead, berberine can be bought over-the-counter for as low as $10 — meaning anyone can get a hold of the supplement.
Savannah Crosby, 34, from Texas uploaded her experience taking berberine on TikTok, adding weekly updates that detail her weight loss and side effects of the supplement. Since uploading, her videos have reached over 1 million views, with other users commenting about similar experiences.
Crosby, who has been taking berberine for eight weeks, started taking the supplement for insulin resistance and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) treatment. Like others on TikTok who shared that Ozempic was out of their price range, she turned to berberine hoping for the same results.
The side effects Crosby shared include headaches, constipation and diarrhea — similar to Ozempic. However, long-term use can have an effect on gut health and potentially increase metabolic disorders.
Although berberine is used to improve glucose control and insulin resistance, the supplement has not been approved for use in the United States to treat symptoms of Type 2 diabetes. Additionally, doctors warn that just because a product is deemed “natural,” doesn’t mean it’s safe.
We asked experts if berberine should be used for weight loss, the risks associated with appetite-suppressant medications, and what to know before trying the popular supplement:
How berberine allegedly works
The metabolic system allows for movement, growth, development and reproduction through reactions in the body that provide energy. Most people who develop metabolic syndrome have insulin resistance, making it more difficult for cells to respond to insulin. As a result, blood sugar levels increase, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
“Berberine operates on the molecular level by subtly hindering the efficiency of mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of your cells,” Vinjamoori said. “In response, your body activates a pathway, which not only boosts insulin sensitivity but also promotes the production of more mitochondria. This approach might be likened to jogging with weights on, making the body work harder and thus ramping up its metabolic capacity.”
However, the use of berberine for weight loss is limited and hasn’t been approved as a weight-loss supplement in the U.S. Not only that, experts aren’t even convinced that berberine has meaningful results. To compare the supplement, Metformin, a different anti-diabetic medication used to lower blood sugar, is referred to for similar weight loss properties.
“The best inference we can make on berberine’s potential for weight loss comes from a similar compound, metformin,” Vinjamoori said. “Metformin has been shown only to produce about a 3 to 5% weight loss at best.”
The risks of the herbal supplement
Berberine has also been used as an antimicrobial for the treatment of bacterial growth in the small intestine, which is common in people with IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome. As a result, the supplement is given for a short time to stop overgrowth of bacteria. However, taking berberine for more than one to two weeks does more harm than good, said Heather Munnelly, a functional nutritional therapy practitioner.
“It is known that the long term use of berberine can have a negative impact on the microbiome,” Munnelly said. “In other words, berberine kills your probiotics and allows pathogenic bacteria to thrive.”
The usual dose of berberine is 250 to 500 mg two to three times daily. Side effects of the supplement include nausea, abdominal bloating, diarrhea, constipation, stomach cramps and gas.
Generally, suppressing your appetite can cause health problems, including liver damage. Additionally, people on TikTok reported stomach pains after using berberine as a weight loss supplement.
“The irony of this is that people are using berberine to lose weight,” Munnelly said. “However, berberine is effectively an herbal antibiotic, meaning it kills the probiotics in your gut. This leads to lowered microbial diversity which is associated with weight gain, obesity and metabolic disorders. None of these things are going to support the goal of weight loss, rather quite the opposite, especially if used long term.”
Here’s who shouldn’t take berberine
Most experts won’t recommend anyone take berberine without talking to a doctor first. Additionally, there are certain groups of people who may be more susceptible to negative effects from the supplement. These include:
Nikka Kanani, a naturopathic doctor at Newport Integrative Health, told HuffPost that berberine shouldn’t be taken if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Taking berberine in pregnancy increases the risk of kernicterus, a neurological disorder of infants; and jaundice, when there is an increase in bilirubin in the baby’s body.
People taking other prescription medications
“Make sure to talk to your doctor before taking a berberine supplement if you are currently taking any prescription medications, as berberine may interact with multiple medications including but not limited to blood pressure medications, antidepressants and anticoagulants,” Kanani said.
Since berberine has the ability to break down enzymes quickly, it might decrease the effects of certain drugs. With sedative medications, berberine can cause sleepiness and slowed breathing.
You should be cautious about taking berberine with other diabetes medication like metformin, which can increase side effects. Additionally, blood sugar levels can drop too low.
Bottom line: Don’t turn to berberine for weight loss without talking to your doctor
If you are interested in taking berberine as someone who isn’t diabetic or at risk for diabetes, it’s important to understand the possible dangers.
“As always, I recommend talking with your doctor to make sure berberine is the right supplement for you,” Kanani said. “Just because it’s naturally derived, does not mean that it is safe for everyone.”
For people who are turning to the supplement as a way to lose weight because nutrition and exercise isn’t working, there might be a deeper issue going on, Munnelly said. Struggling with fluctuations in weight may be a result of chronic stress, conditions such as hyperthyroidism, or an imbalance in hormones, including PCOS.
“If you are struggling to lose weight with nutrition and exercise, then consider there might be a deeper issue going on,” Munnelly said. “The gut microbiome, toxins, blood sugar balance, and many other factors play into the picture of how much weight a person carries, and optimizing your weight is realistically so much more complex than popping a pill, as influencers would have you believe.”