Berberine, a natural product that has been used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for hundreds of years, is all the rage right now among those wanting to lose weight. Many see it as a natural version of Ozempic which, in addition, costs much less. However, experts are very skeptical about the weight loss potential of this molecule and they advise against its use.
Social networks have helped to create a real craze for berberine, which is presented as a natural substance, probably healthier than a drug, allowing weight loss, and at a lower cost than Ozempic, the drug used firstly to treat diabetics and which was found to also cause weight loss. Even some athletes whose weight is important in the practice of their sport prefer to use berberine rather than molecules like Ozempic which, according to rumors, melt muscle mass more than berberine.
According to the experts consulted, these properties attributed to berberine, which can be extracted from different plants, such as goldenseal, savoyana and barberry, are still far from proven.
A few studies seem to indicate that berberine induces weight loss, but some of them “were not done according to the rules of the art.” And several focused on heterogeneous populations with various health problems, such as diabetes. The participants in these studies were not necessarily healthy, making it difficult to draw strong conclusions about the effect of berberine on weight loss,” says Sylvia Santosa, professor at the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology at Concordia University.
In addition, most studies have been carried out in animals, most often in mice. “A very limited number have been conducted in humans, and they have several limitations,” notes this holder of a research chair in clinical nutrition who conducts research on obesity.
“We are not at a point where we could recommend berberine for weight loss. We need more large, well-conducted studies that include controls,” she says.
The Dr Rémi Rabasa-Lhoret, endocrinologist at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) and at the CHUM, claims to have seen two or three studies on berberine reporting weight loss, the latter however being half as much as that obtained with berberine. Ozempic. Ozempic, which, for its part, has been the subject of dozens of randomized controlled studies (where a group of patients receiving the drug is compared to a control group taking a placebo) with thousands of patients. “In such a few studies, in such a small group of humans, there is possibly a signal of weight loss which is interesting, but it will certainly have to be confirmed. »
And to athletes, he replies that “when we lose weight, we necessarily also lose muscle mass”.
Specialist in internal and bariatric medicine at the University Institute of Cardiology and Pneumology of Quebec, the DD Marie-Philippe Morin also expresses many reservations about berberine: above all because it is a natural product and they are not subject to as rigorous an evaluation as drugs before their approval. “We simply carry out toxicity studies to ensure that the doses that will be marketed are not toxic,” she emphasizes.
“I would not recommend it to patients who would like to take it, because often, populations [touchées par] obesity have several comorbidities and take many other medications for these other health conditions. So, there are risks of interactions with these medications and significant side effects,” she says.
No approval by Health Canada
For its part, Health Canada “has not authorized any products containing berberine for weight-related claims. […] Studies have shown that berberine has some effect on weight, but the data were insufficient to meet our standard of proof for any weight-related claims. Duty by email Marie-Pier Burelle, media relations advisor at Health Canada.
The claims approved by Health Canada are instead: “the maintenance of healthy cholesterol levels, healthy lipid metabolism and healthy glucose metabolism”. “Berberine has been tested in a few clinical trials in people with diabetes and has been shown to significantly reduce blood glucose and lipid levels. The exact mechanism underlying these effects is still the subject of preclinical research [animales] and human,” added Mme Burelle.
There is a kind of aura around natural products which means that we necessarily consider them to be good. And there is this tendency to think that everything that comes from the pharmaceutical industry is almost always toxic and bad. However, hemlock is a completely natural product whose formidable side effects have been known since Antiquity.
The effect of berberine on blood sugar that is reported in studies is not negligible, agrees the Dr Rabasa-Lhoret, doctor at the IRCM diabetes clinic. “But the doses, the form of the product and the duration of treatment vary extremely from one study to another. And in the articles – which are often not published in scientific journals with a high impact factor – we do not talk about side effects,” he points out. “We are very, very far from a product that has been well studied, as drugs must be” before their approval by Health Canada. Given all these drawbacks, “I do not recommend diabetic patients to take berberine today,” declares the specialist who nevertheless believes that the hypoglycemic effect of berberine deserves to “be studied in a more detailed manner.” serious.”
The experts consulted also emphasize the danger posed by possible interactions with other medications. “If a person takes a hypoglycemic to treat their diabetes and they start to consume berberine, they risk having hypoglycemia,” underlines the Dr Rabasa-Lhoret, who encourages her patients to discuss what they are taking outside of their prescribed medication.
“Often, people prefer a natural product to a medication. However, just because it is natural does not mean it is good for our health. Many people wrongly believe that because it is natural, it is better. This is not necessarily the case. There are plenty of poisonous mushrooms that are natural. Belladonna, which comes from a plant, is very toxic,” notes Sylvia Santosa.
“There is a kind of aura around natural products which means that we necessarily consider them to be good. And there is this tendency to think that everything that comes from the pharmaceutical industry is almost always toxic and bad. However, hemlock is a completely natural product whose formidable side effects have been known since Antiquity. And metformin [un médicament largement utilisé pour traiter le diabète] is extracted from lilac, so it’s somewhat of a natural product! » adds the Dr Rabasa-Lhoret.
According to the DD Marie-Philippe Morin, the fact that people are flocking to all kinds of natural products and various commercial programs clearly demonstrates the lack of health care for obesity in Quebec. “There are very few obesity clinics, and access to obesity medications, bariatric surgery, multidisciplinary teams is very limited, and sometimes even impossible, if the person is not diabetic. That’s a three-year wait for bariatric surgery! Faced with such a shortage, people find themselves alone with their problems, so they turn to social media, to websites, to all kinds of things that sometimes make no sense, because they are desperate. . Our government must increase access to care for these people, because we have things to offer them! »