Ozempic and Wegovy are typically prescribed for diabetes, but in recent months they have made headlines following endorsements from celebrities and billionaires like Elon Musk, who say the drugs are quick weight loss solutions.
The rise in the use of Ozempic for reasons beyond treating diabetes has led to a national shortage. Now, attention has shifted to a dietary supplement called berberine, which is being touted on social media as "nature's Ozempic."
"Berberine is a natural compound found in a multitude of plants," Dr. Carl Giordano, a surgeon in New Jersey, tells CNBC Make It. "The most common plants are barberry, goldenseal, Oregon grapes [and] Chinese goldthread."
Similar to Ozempic, berberine decreases blood sugar and can lead to weight reduction, says Giordano who is also co-founder of Rebesana, a company that researches healthspan and lifespan.
But unlike Ozempic, the natural drug isn't injectable and can be taken orally.
Berberine differs from Ozempic in other ways as well. "[Berberine] doesn't help with stopping the body from feeling hungry [or] stopping cravings," says Neil Paulvin, a NY-based longevity and regenerative medicine doctor. "It doesn't slow down how the stomach empties, which is one of the main ways that Ozempic and Mounjaro work."
Using berberine, "patients maybe lose two to four pounds a month at max, if not less," says Paulvin. "With Ozempic, people are losing five to 12, sometimes up to 16 pounds a month."
Berberine is inexpensive compared to Ozempic's monthly cost of $1,000 or more. A 90-count bottle of the supplement costs around $40. It is also more easily accessible, and can be bought over the counter in drugstores like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens.
But Giordano says berberine appears to have great health benefits that far exceed weight loss: "I don't know why doctors don't recommend this regularly."
The big question that people want answered is "can berberine aid in weight loss?" The answer is maybe.
Berberine may help a person shed a few pounds because it can improve "the way insulin works and the way your body can use carbohydrates. It makes people less insulin-resistant," he says.
Berberine can also help "the body bring sugar out of the system and into the cells, which in some cases helps with weight loss," Paulvin adds.
It's important to note that most clinical trials testing berberine's effect on weight loss have been done on mice.
According to Giordano and Paulvin, more potential health benefits of berberine are:
- Decreasing how much glucose cells ingest
- Working on cellular pathways that influence longevity
- Healing the gut and getting rid of infection
- Inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria in your gut
- Reducing inflammation
- Slightly lowering cholesterol levels
"I find that talking about berberine and weight loss is frivolous and cosmetic. I like to talk about berberine as a real mechanism to work on chronic issues today that we see. We live in a state of chronic inflammation which leads to chronic illnesses as we get older," says Giordano, who takes berberine daily.
"I'm happy to talk about berberine as a weight reduction compound, but I think what's really great about this is that that's a springboard to get us to talk about the real health benefits of berberine."
Drugs derived from plants are pretty common and typically effective, including aspirin. Similar to those medications, berberine is an over-the-counter supplement that can be purchased without a prescription, says Giordano.
Berberine is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat conditions, but dietary supplements aren't required to undergo the FDA's approval process. Like all supplements, you should know that, depending on where you purchase berberine, there is a possibility it may not be in its purest form and additives could be present.
For your safety, Giordano recommends talking to your doctor before adding any drug to your diet. Some people have allergic reactions to certain supplements; and depending on other medications you're taking, you can have an adverse reaction to berberine.
People who are diabetic or are on the petite side can experience hypoglycemia symptoms from taking berberine as well, says Paulvin. Hypoglycemia occurs when a person's blood sugar falls lower than the healthy range.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of hypoglycemia can include:
- And in extreme cases, seizures
There is also a possibility that taking berberine can cause bloating or irritable bowel syndrome, Giordano says. To avoid this as much as possible, he suggests taking berberine with meals.
"I think the health benefits of berberine are so good that it's one of those things that everybody should consider taking, not just for the blood sugar [which can impact weight loss], but again, for longevity," says Giordano.
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