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Is Using Berberine for Weight Loss Safe?

Berberine supplements used for weight loss

The rapid rise in popularity of weight loss medications has people searching for the next best thing. Now a supplement called berberine has been touted as “nature’s Ozempic” on social media. But how does it compare to the class of drugs called GLP-1 agonists like Ozempic and Wegovy that have been proven to help people lose a significant amount of weight?

Berberine is a chemical compound found in plants that has been used in natural medications for hundreds of years. So why is it gaining in popularity now? Wajahat Mehal, MD, PhD, Co-director of the Yale New Haven Health Center for Weight Management, Director of the Yale Fatty Liver Disease Program and the Yale Metabolic Health and Weight Loss Program says there are some studies in animals that show berberine can impact aspects of metabolic syndrome such as diabetes and inflammation. However, that doesn’t mean people taking berberine will get the same impact that they would get from an FDA-approved weight loss medication.

“As things stand, the clinical trial data really isn't sufficient to recommend taking berberine,” said Dr. Mehal. “If we take somebody who is moderately overweight, they're probably looking at if anything, five to six pounds weight loss.”

In addition, those looking to take berberine may not know exactly what they’re ingesting. Unlike medications that are closely regulated, over-the-counter supplements are not monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means there could be a mix of multiple chemical compounds inside the supplement and the dosages of berberine are not always known.

While Dr. Mehal says he does not think berberine is harmful, it could result in some side effects impacting the gut such as diarrhea, nausea and upset stomach.

GLP-1 agonists like Ozempic for weight loss

Unlike berberine, some GLP-1 agonists have been approved for weight loss (Wegovy, Saxenda). Ozempic is used to treat type 2 diabetes, but may help patients to lose weight as a side effect. These drugs were traditionally used for the management of diabetes but are now being used for weight loss because they have been shown to suppress appetite, and have additional helpful effects.

These drugs have quickly become mainstream and can benefit a certain subset of patients. However, they are not an alternative to a healthy lifestyle. Patients who take these medications still need to make long term changes to their diet and lifestyle to improve their overall health.

“I always say it’s of no importance to me what someone's weight is, or what their waist circumference is or anything like that,” said Dr. Mehal. “But we know that both are tightly associated with diseases like diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure and stroke, which of course we care a lot about. So, I would ask people to really ask themselves why they want to lose weight and the best reason is if they have a health condition that's driven by weight, and they want that to either go away or at least to improve.”

Anyone interested in learning more about their weight loss options should speak with their primary care doctor, who can help guide them in taking the next steps. Depending on their needs, patients may benefit from seeing other specialists who can address underlying conditions tied to weight and explore other options for weight loss such as bariatric surgery.