Updated 15 June 2015

Can natural berberine lower cholesterol?

The herbal supplement berberine has recently become popular for treating high cholesterol. Too much cholesterol in our blood is a risk factor for heart problems and stroke.

Cholesterol is a lipid (fatty acid) molecule that is created by all animals as part of their cell membranes to maintain structural integrity and fluidity. Cholesterol is also needed to make vitamin D, bile acids and steroid hormones. Our bodies make cholesterol, but it is also found in some of the foods we eat.

The good and the bad

When there is too much cholesterol in our blood we develop fatty deposits on the walls of our arteries which can obstruct blood flow. This can result in your heart not getting enough oxygen-rich blood, increasing the risk of a heart attack. Also, if your brain doesn’t get enough blood, you might suffer a stroke

There are two kinds of cholesterol, the good and the bad. LDL cholesterol is “bad” because it helps cause plaque that can clog arteries and make them inflexible (atherosclerosis). HDL is the “good” cholesterol because it removes LDL and may protect against stroke and heart attack.

Internationally, high cholesterol is an increasing problem, and  according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 71 million Americans have high cholesterol.


Drugs that limit the production of cholesterol:

These include drugs that limit the production of cholesterol such as statins (pravastatin, simvastatin, atorvastatin and rosuvastatin), fibrates (bezafibrate, gemfibrozil and fenofibrate) and nicotinic acid (one of the B group of vitamins). They also include drugs that interrupt the recycling of cholesterol such as bile acid sequestrants (bholestyramine) and exetimibe. 

Natural ways to lower LDL cholesterol:

- Diet. Saturated fat and cholesterol intake should be reduced and fibre intake increased.

- Weight management. Losing weight and reducing waist measurement helps to reduce LDL cholesterol.

- Exercise: About 30 minutes’ exercise per day is recommended to reduce LDL and increase HDL.

- Stop smoking: Smoking is an independent major risk factor for coronary heart disease,  cerebrovascular disease and total atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

- Taking supplements. Omega-3 oils, soy, sterol-enriched margarines, some forms of fibre,  garlic, nuts, green tea and calcium have individually been shown to have a small LDL-lowering effect, especially when combined with diet modification and the use of statins.

Read: How high cholesterol is treated.

Alternative medicine

According to the Mayo Clinic complementary and alternative medicine has never been more popular, and nearly 40 percent of adults report using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). There are even “regular” doctors who combine alternative therapies with CAM therapies, referred to as "integrative medicine”.

As can be expected there are a number of alternative remedies to lower LDL cholesterol, e.g. garlic, red yeast rice, fenugreek seeds and leaves, artichoke leaf extract, yarrow, holy basil, ginger, turmeric and rosemary.

Enter berberine

Recently another herbal supplement, berberine, has become popular for treating high cholesterol. Berberine is an alkaloid found mainly in the herbs goldenseal and Oregon grape and is used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine to treat stomach problems, diarrhoea and fungal and bacterial infections.  

Berberine has a strong herbal smell and a distinct yellow colour and has long been used as a natural dye. It is currently known as “natural yellow 18,” being one of about 35 yellow dyes from natural sources.

According to a 2005 study using hamsters, berberine can effectively reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels in hamsters fed a high-fat, high-cholesterol. A study with human subjects found that three 500 mg doses of berberine per day for 12 weeks managed to lower triglyceride levels by 23% and cholesterol levels by 12.2%.

This represents a greater decrease of cholesterol levels than the statin ezetimibe (see above), which may be good news for people who are sensitive to statins as berberine is generally well tolerated.

Read: Statins may lower heart disease risk for diabetics

It appears that berberine increases the production of a receptor protein in the liver that binds LDL cholesterol, after which it is excreted.

In addition the test subjects also lost five pounds (2.3kg) on average without any change in their diets. “Collectively, this study demonstrates that berberine is a potent lipid-lowering compound with a moderate weight loss effect…,” according to the investigators.

Berberine has also been found to be effective against:

- Bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites

- Diarrhoea

- High blood sugar

- High blood pressure

- Overweight and obesity

- Dementia

- Multi-drug resistant E. coli

- Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Where to get berberine?

Berberine is available from selected health and wellness stores as well as Chinese and Ayurvedic health practitioners and a key ingredient in the supplement EC Matrixx. Becauce berberine may decrease total and LDL cholesterol, as well as triglycerides, caution is advised in patients taking any cholesterol-lowering agents.

Before you rush out and buy berberine, read up on the uses, side effects, precautions and drug interactions

Read more:

Top 10 foods that control cholesterol

Cholesterol and lipids

Treating high cholesterol

Image: Goldenseal from Shutterstock


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