Can This Herb Completely Replace Drugs for Type-2 Diabetics?
Dr. Frank Shallenberger
Photo (link is external) by Danny Steven, ©2012 / CC BY-SA 3.0
Berberis vulgaris (barberry) is a good source of berberine.
A few weeks ago, I received this email from a diabetic patient of mine. He’s been working hard to control his blood sugar. He said, “Hi Frank, I have some very good news that I’m excited to tell you. I’ve been following your program closely and was a little discouraged. Although my A1c levels [average blood sugar levels] have been dropping, my fasting blood sugar has not. It was still at 123. About two to three weeks ago, I began taking berberine (500 mg, three times daily) and my fasting blood sugar dropped into the 90s. I’m stoked! Sincerely, Rich.”
So the question I had to answer for myself is, “Why did Rich fail to respond well to my usual program, and then do so well on berberine?”
Berberine is a phytochemical (plant chemical) found in many different plants. When used in herbal medicine, the usual sources are barberry, goldenseal, or Oregon grape. It’s the main alkaloid of Coptis chinensis, which Asian folk medicine uses to treat diabetes. You also may hear people refer to Coptis chinensis as Chinese Goldthread, Huang-Lian, and Huang-LienIt.
Berberine has a lot of uses. It can treat heart disease, immune disorders, digestive problems, eye infections, and other infections. I had never heard of it being all that effective in diabetes. So as soon as Rich sent me that message, I looked into it. I found several well-written scientific articles describing an effect of berberine that I could hardly believe. It seems that you can use it as a substitute for insulin.
One study, published just last year looked at the effect of berberine on how well muscle cells take in sugar. As you probably already know, except when we are actively exercising, sugar cannot get into muscle cells unless insulin is present to escort it in. That’s why the blood sugar goes up when patients either don’t have enough insulin, or when the insulin they do have doesn’t work effectively, a condition called insulin resistance.
In the study, the researchers exposed muscle cells from rats to berberine, and then examined what happened. What they discovered was amazing.
The berberine solution had the same effect on the cells as insulin.
Just like insulin, it activated the same biochemical pathway (protein kinase phosphorylation activation of GLUT-4) that signals cells to take up more sugar. And just like insulin, the greater the amount of berberine they exposed the cells to, the more sugar they took up. All this happened in the absence of any insulin! Now I understand why Rich had the great result he had. I also see why he was not responding to the program I describe in my book, The Type-2 Diabetes Breakthrough.
I always check the insulin blood levels of all my diabetic patients. This helps determine who will be able to control their diabetes without needing insulin injections. As a general rule, patients with an insulin level greater than 10 micromols per milliliter have enough insulin to get the job done. They should respond really well to natural therapies.
However, there is one small problem with measuring blood insulin levels – they are not always accurate. So even though Rich’s levels looked adequate, they weren’t. That’s why he didn’t respond fully until he finally added in the berberine supplement. Rich needed an insulin-like effect in order to achieve complete control of his sugar levels. And this study shows that this is exactly what berberine has to offer.
So from now on, in my diabetic patients with low insulin levels, you can bet that I will be starting them right away on berberine.
My guess from Rich’s experience and also from articles like the one I mentioned here is that many patients who are taking insulin or drugs designed to increase insulin may be able to either stop them or reduce them after starting berberine.
Better than metformin for diabetes
Now I’d like to tell you about another study that proves this. In fact, this study shows that berberine might just be the best medication there is, natural or otherwise, for diabetes.
This study looked at the effect of berberine on 36 patients. All of them were newly diagnosed cases of type-2 diabetes.
Half of the patients took 500 mg, three times daily of the drug metformin (also known as Glucophage). The other half took berberine (berberine hydrochloride) in the same dose – 500 mg, three times a day. Then the researchers measured the participants’ blood sugar levels for the next three months. Here’s what happened: In terms of blood sugar control, both treatments worked equally as well. The fasting blood sugars went down 30%. And the sugar levels after eating (called the post prandial levels) went down even more – 45%.
But here’s the really astounding thing about berberine. All of this happened within the first two to four weeks of taking the treatment. And unlike metformin, there were no side effects at all in any of the patients taking berberine. In addition to the sugar levels, the A1c levels went down as well – a full 20%. That may not sound like a lot. But it’s a very significant improvement.
In addition to the remarkable effects it had on blood sugar control, berberine had another important effect that metformin did not have.
Triglycerides are the fats found in the bloodstream that the cells metabolize for energy. Since type-2 diabetics do not effectively burn fat (that’s why they get fat), their triglyceride levels are always elevated.
In this study, those patients taking berberine had a reduction in their triglyceride levels of 21%. Those taking metformin had no reduction at all. This indicates that berberine not only improves sugar metabolism, it also improves fat metabolism. This might make berberine the most effective overall medication for diabetes that exists today, including pharmaceuticals. In fact, the authors of the study stated that berberine “can serve as a new class of anti-diabetic medication.”
Jun Yina, Huili Xinga, and Jianping Yeb. “Efficacy of Berberine in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes” Metabolism. 2008 May; 57(5): 712-717.
Ma, X., T. Egawa, H. Kimura, K. Karaike, S. Masuda, N. Iwanaka, and T. Hayashi. “Berberine-induced activation of 5′-adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase and glucose transport in rat skeletal muscles.” Metabolism, 2010 November;59(11):1619-27. Epub 2010 April 27.
About the Author
Dr. Frank Shallenberger
Dr. Frank Shallenberger is Editor-in-Chief of Second Opinion Newsletter (link is external) and Second Opinion Health Alert. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and received his post graduate training at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. He is board certified by the American Board of Anti-AgingRead more