What Is Berberine?
Berberine is one of the active alkaloid extracts, derived from a variety of plants (i.e. Oregon grape, barberry, tree turmeric, goldenseal, Amor cork tree, Chinese goldthread or “huanglian” or “Coptis chinensis”, etc.), that have been traditionally used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines for the treatment of diabetes, infections and gastrointestinal problems.
Studies* have demonstrated a wide-range of benefits of berberine:
*(human, in-vivo and/or in-vitro)
- liver protection (protects against chemotherapy injury)
- anti-Alzheimer’s disease
- anti-rheumatoid arthritis
- anti-diabetic (randomized trial found that berberine is as effective as the drug metformin); that should be no surprise, as berberine has many of the same effects as metformin (i.e. AMP kinase activator, increases insulin sensitivity, decreases gluconeogenesis, reduces glucose absorption in the gut, etc.)…so, if your physician won’t write you that prescription for metformin for its’ anti-cancer benefits, maybe berberine is a good alternative. (Read more about metformin on my prior blog post)
- anti-cancer (causes cancer cell death, slows cancer growth and increases the effectiveness of radiation therapy and chemotherapy)
- Inhibits the development of cancer from carcinogen exposure
- promotes weight loss
- cholesterol & triglyceride lowering (in one randomized study: lowering triglycerides by 36%, LDL cholesterol by 21%, and total cholesterol by 18%)
- improves post-operative ileus
- protects against radiation-induced gastrointestinal symptoms (this study used a dose of 300 mg, three-times per day during radiation therapy)
- reduces colitis
Anti-cancer Activity Against Various Cancer Types*
*(human, in-vivo and/or in-vitro)
- Brain Tumor (glioma)
- Breast Cancer
- Colon Cancer
- Head & Neck Cancers
- Liver Cancer
- Lung Cancer
- Ovarian Cancer
- Pancreatic Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
- Stomach Cancer
- Thyroid Cancer
I think it’s truly remarkable how one compound can have anti-cancer activity against so many different cancer types! And as you’ll read below, this one compound exerts its effects on numerous pathways…isn’t nature amazing?!
How Does It Work?
It slows cancer growth and causes cancer cell death through a variety of mechanisms: tumor cell apoptosis and cell cycle arrest, inhibits blood vessel growth to tumors, inhibition of tumor cellular invasion and metastases (spread), etc.
One of the main anti-cancer targets that is inhibited by berberine is NF-kappaB. NF-kappa B is one of the most important proteins in our cells, acting as a key switch in the development and progression of inflammation and cancer.
- Cancer (and precancerous cells) often have a permanently activated NF-kappa B, which keeps the cells proliferating and prevents them from dying (apoptosis.)
- Chronic inflammation can also be a result of activated NF-kappa B, and we know that chronic inflammation can lead to cancer growth (learn more about this on my previous blog post.)
Additionally, berberine is a radio-sensitizer of tumor cells, but not of normal cells (in fact, it may protect normal cells.) Therefore, berberine may make radiation therapy more effective.
Berberine also inhibits the tendency of cancer cells to become drug resistant over time by inhibiting the cellular membrane proteins that pump drugs out of the cell.
When berberine is taken with numerous chemotherapy drugs, studies have shown that they work synergistically against cancer cells.
As with other promising anti-cancer plant compounds (i.e. green tea, turmeric, etc.), there are data suggesting that using the whole plant extract (Coptidis rhizoma or “huanglian”) may be more effective than simply taking berberine, alone. This is potentially due to synergistic effects of the many known and unknown anti-cancer compounds in the whole plant.
- Displaces bilirubin and should not be administered to jaundiced neonates (may increase bilirubin levels due to displacement of bilirubin from albumin)
- May cause a prolonged QT interval (a variable in cardiac electrical conduction) in patients with underlying heart disease
- Berberine inhibits liver enzymes called “cytochromes P450“ (specifically these enzymes: CYP2D6, CYP2D6, CYP2C9, and CYP3A4): taking a drug or supplement that also inhibits these liver enzymes can increase the blood levels of both compounds, increasing the risk of toxicity.
- Always discuss your use of supplements with your physicians first, before starting them.
- Here’s an abbreviated list of some of the more common drugs that also interact with the cytochromes p450 enzymes.
Additional References (i.e. indications, drug-herb interactions, contraindications, etc):
- Examine.com (Berberine)
- University of Maryland Medical Center (goldenseal)
- WebMD (goldenseal)
- WebMD (berberine)
- Natural Standard (berberine)
- Natural Standard (goldenseal)
- Natural Standard (huang lian, huanglian or “Coptis”)
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: About Herbs (goldenseal)
- “Clinical Applications for Berberine: Potential therapeutic applications in metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and dyslipidemia” Natural Medicine Journal, December 2012 (by Jacob Schor, ND FABNO)
- The usual dose is 500 mg 2–3 times a day. Although it is generally well tolerated, berberine can cause constipation, which usually clears up over time or with a reduction in dosage.
My Favorite Berberine Supplement:
Dr. Lawenda’s Bottom Line:
Berberine (or its’ whole plant extracts) may be an alternative anti-cancer compound to metformin, as it shares many of the same mechanisms of action. Metformin is not FDA approved for this indication, so it can be challenging to get a physician to write for it outside of the treatment for type 2 diabetes. (Read more about metformin on my prior blog post)
Berberine has not been rigorously studied in human cancer trials, so we don’t know much about its anti-cancer efficacy outside of preclinical reports.
That said, berberine (and whole plant extracts) is readily available (over-the-counter), has a long track record of safety and is supported by a large amount of preclinical data demonstrating numerous anti-cancer benefits.
**As always, check with your cancer care team before starting any new supplements.**