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The back and forth on Berberine, the alleged 'Nature's Ozempic'

Scripps News examines the dietary supplement touted on social media, but doctors advise against relying on it for weight loss.
The back and forth on Berberine, the alleged 'Nature's Ozempic'
Posted at 4:30 PM, Aug 20, 2023

The active compound, found in plants like barberry, tree turmeric, and goldenseal, has been skyrocketing in popularity as a growing number of people turn to it as a pathway for losing weight.

"I found it on TikTok, so I’m going to share my story on TikTok," Casey Shaw, a TikTok user, said.

Some are even dubbing it "Nature’s Ozempic," after the injectable type two diabetes medication that has been trending for its weight loss effects. So what makes berberine so attractive?

"It’s currently a supplement that’s being marketed to decrease blood sugars, decrease appetite, and decrease weight," Dr. Priya Jaisinghani, an endocrinologist and obesity medicine doctor at NYU Langone Health, said.

According to Jaisinghani, the price of berberine is eye-catching for patients looking to lose weight.

"With increasing demand of medications like Ozempic due to their effectiveness, we've also seen that there has been an increased shortage in medications like Ozempic, and they've been very difficult to obtain," Jaisinghani said. Due to variability in insurance coverage and high co-pays, they're also quite expensive. With that, many people have turned to seeking alternatives that may be touted or have property claims that are similar to medications like Ozempic."

A month's supply of Ozempic can reportedly cost up to $900 or more, whereas a month's supply of Berberine often falls below $50 online. But the price and social media reviews aren't the only factors Jaisinghani says folks should consider before trying the supplement.

"We have to remember that studies on Berberine are limited. They're usually shorter in duration. They have a smaller study population. They may have risk of bias, lack of variability," Jaisinghani said. "Currently, we do not know the exact effectiveness or mechanism that berberine has on weight or glucose, if any, and it's still under investigation."

It's important to note that berberine is considered a dietary supplement and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "does not have the authority to approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness" the way it can with medicines such as Ozempic.

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"We have to be very careful when we're using an FDA-approved medication's name as a nickname for a supplement." "What I usually tell individuals is that natural does not equate to safe or harmless. We have to remember that whether the compounds are natural or they're manufactured, they all have effects."

And that starts with understanding how the supplement works inside your body.

"Think of it as a natural antibiotic, and it works primarily in your intestines because the nature of the molecule doesn't really allow it to get out into your bloodstream very well. So it's used on a short-term basis to treat bacterial diarrhea. However, it does modulate your gut microbiome," said Cassandra Quave, Curator of the Herbarium and Associate Professor of Dermatology and Human Health at Emory University.

While excited that more people are taking an interest in medicinal plants, Quave notes that more research needs to be done on how berberine impacts the body on a long-term basis.

"We're starting to understand more and more about the gut microbiome. And there are certain things we shouldn't mess with, just as I wouldn't tell you, 'Hey, take penicillin just a little bit every day for weight loss.' No, it's not a good idea. And there's actually no real evidence showing that this helps with weight loss when it comes to scientific evidence," Quave said.

Which is why a doctor's input is recommended before starting any supplement. No matter how promising it may seem on social media,

"So even with Berberine, you want to make sure you speak to your doctor before starting a supplementation," Quave said. "We have to recognize that obesity is a very chronic and complex disease that tends to relapse. And for that, in order to tackle a disease such as obesity, you want to make sure that you're taking a multidisciplinary approach."

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