Updated on April 7, 2023
Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes means far more than dealing with a single medical condition. Individuals with type 2 diabetes contend with a broad spectrum of health concerns, ranging from blood sugar maintenance to weight management to diabetic neuropathy.
Although there are individual therapies that can help patients address each aspect of the condition, in recent years there have been calls for the development of broad-spectrum solutions that can simultaneously address multiple components of the condition, without subjecting patients to unwanted side effects. Currently, one of the most promising natural management options is berberine.
Berberine is a plant extract that has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. Following decades of research, researchers have developed a strong understanding of how this natural alkaloid can exert its beneficial activities in individuals with type 2 diabetes.
The success of the in vitro research has driven animal studies that suggest possible ways in which berberine might have positive effects on a wide range of type 2 diabetes symptoms. In the last few years, the first human studies have gotten underway, and although the clinical research is still in its infancy, it has the potential to clarify the specific benefits of berberine supplementation for diabetes.
Berberine stands out because scientists have a solid understanding of the specific cellular pathways through which it works. Specifically, berberine upregulates a protein that plays an important role in a wide range of energy production and utilization pathways.*
According to a 2006 study, berberine stimulates glucose uptake in the cell, which is highly relevant for type 2 diabetes.*
In 2010, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences found that berberine increases the expression of insulin receptors, indicating the potential for a prominent role in providing nutritional support in type 2 diabetes patients.* There is also research to suggest that berberine might help maintain normal cholesterol levels by increasing the degradation of a protein that down-regulates the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor.
As researchers continue to find associations between berberine and a variety of cellular pathways, there is ongoing interest within the research community to elucidate additional mechanisms through which this multifunctional compound might be able to help individuals with type 2 diabetes.
In light of the promising mechanistic research on the role that berberine might play in providing nutritional support for type 2 diabetes, researchers have conducted numerous studies in animal models over the last few decades.
In one rat model of diabetes, administration of berberine led to lower fasting glucose levels, as well as an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol levels and an accompanying decline in total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.*
Studies in animal models indicate that berberine might also aid in providing nutritional support for some of the most common issues observed in type 2 diabetes, including the following:
In a 2010 study, researchers at South Dakota State University found that berberine might be effective in a weight management program for individuals with type 2 diabetes.* In their mouse models, berberine supplementation directly inhibited adipogenesis–that is, the generation of fat cells.*
Nerve damage is a debilitating complication of type 2 diabetes. Through multiple pathways, berberine apparently helps maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response, thus helping to maintain normal nerve function.*
A 2010 study published in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics showed that berberine supported kidney health in rat models of diabetes.*
Memory impairment and other signs of cognitive decline are common among type 2 diabetes patients. Through a combination of protein expression studies, brain imaging, and behavioral tests on rat models, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China found that administration of berberine helps maintain cognitive function in individuals with type 2 diabetes.*
Although most of the studies on berberine for diabetes have been conducted in vitro and on animal models, the few human studies that have been conducted have produced promising results. For instance, in a pilot study in 2008, researchers gave berberine to newly-diagnosed type 2 diabetes patients.
The berberine group experienced statistically significant benefits in maintaining normal levels of hemoglobin A1c, fasting blood glucose, postprandial blood glucose, and plasma triglycerides, starting only one week after the trial began.*
In a follow-up trial, the researchers recruited 48 adults with type 2 diabetes and found similarly statistically significant benefits.*
This pilot and follow-up studies suggest that berberine supplementation could have significant benefits, warranting larger scale clinical studies on individuals with type 2 diabetes in the future.
Other early studies on berberine for diabetes were conducted over the next few years. According to the authors of a 2012 meta-analytic review of 14 human studies—in which berberine supplementation was compared to lifestyle modification, placebo, and/or alternative oral therapeutics—the compound has considerable promise for providing nutritional support for individuals with type 2 diabetes.*
Based on the research to date, the results thus far indicate there is ample room for researchers to continue to rigorously explore the measurable clinical impacts of berberine for supporting diabetes patients.
Nevertheless, patients and practitioners today can already take advantage of the significant body of existing research. Despite the lack of large-scale clinical trials on berberine’s benefits in type 2 diabetes, the mechanistic evidence for the compound’s efficacy is considerable, and the success of animal studies strongly suggests the biochemical studies are translatable to humans. For patients and practitioners looking for a way to provide nutritional support for individuals with type 2 diabetes, it might be worth considering berberine as an option.
Tesseract Medical Research is committed to helping researchers, practitioners, and patients understand the most relevant research related to a wide range of prominent health conditions, including diabetes.
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