The Skinny Herb?

February 2024 - Health & Wellness

You can’t watch a TV show or scroll your phone without seeing some ad for the drugs Ozempic or Wegovy and other medications for type II diabetes. The recent interest and demand for these medications has less to do with diabetes and more with people seeking it as a weight loss solution. Since 2021 there has been a growing trend of people taking Ozempic and other medications in the GLP-1 agonist family to help them lose weight. The demand for these medications has spurred shortages and created a craze in the world of Instagram, celebrities and fashion due to its quick weight loss for many. But what do we really understand about the use of Ozempic and do we have many alternatives to offer that are not pharmaceutical?

Ozempic, which is a GLP-1 analogue, helps the pancreas release the right amount of insulin when a patient’s blood sugar is high, which in turn reduces the blood glucose levels. Semaglutide medications like Ozempic slow down how quickly the stomach empties food, which can lead to decreased appetite and weight loss. It also helps to reduce a hormone called glucagon after we eat, and that helps reduce our blood sugar levels.

For people with diabetes, these GLP-1 medications can be life-saving. For people seeking weight loss support, these medications may have tremendous results. But with the opportunity for weight loss, these medications also have some risks. The most common side effects with Ozempic include stomach problems like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and constipation. Loss of appetite can also lead to less calories available for basic daily requirements and can lead to fatigue. More concerning potential side effects of these medications are pancreatitis and possibly thyroid cancer (only shown in rodent studies, not in humans). So with the risk/reward ratio of these expensive medications being a bit daunting, we look to other possible options to help with weight loss.

Rivaling Ozempic in the media, berberine has been making headlines as well, as the new “skinny” herb. Berberine is a natural compound that has been used for centuries in traditional western and Chinese medicine. Extracted from the roots and stem bark of plants like Oregon grape and goldenseal, it is a beautiful and vibrant yellow compound which is in a class of isoquinoline alkaloids, and has been traditionally used for its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects. Effective against viruses and parasites, berberine is found in many traditional herbal gut formulas. However, its popularity right now is due to lots of online discussion and some newer research about its effect on blood sugar and potential weight loss.

In terms of blood sugar regulation, berberine has been shown to lower blood glucose levels by activating AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which helps improve insulin sensitivity and decrease insulin resistance. In 2012 in the Journal of Evidence-based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, berberine was shown to be a potent glucose-lowering treatment for people dealing with type II diabetes. In a 2018 journal review in Oncotarget, researchers found that berberine could be as effective as certain medications like metformin for supporting type II diabetes. More recently, a review of 12 studies from 2020 suggested that berberine supplements can potentially impact body weight, body mass index (BMI) and belly fat.

Berberine has also been shown to help lower cholesterol levels in a study back in 2012, with positive changes in total cholesterol and triglyceride levels. An exciting new study that came out in 2020 in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology journal showed some very promising results for berberine helping to prevent pre-cancerous colon polyps. With all of these great potential changes berberine can have on lowering inflammation in the gut, increasing insulin resistance, lowering cholesterol and other lipids in the blood and helping to lose a bit of weight, we should all be on it, right? Maybe?

Berberine isn’t a weight loss miracle and it has a much slower effect than medications like Ozempic. It can be an important player in helping to regulate insulin and support weight loss, but has a completely different mechanism than the IGF-1 medications to help regulate blood sugars. In the studies and in clinical practice we have definitely seen it help with weight loss, but it is taken in combination with lifestyle changes, dietary changes and evaluating other potential concerns like poor hormone regulation. It is an herbal medication that can alter the good bacteria in the gut biome (remember it has been historically used as an anti-microbial) so long-term use should be discouraged. And with any new medication or supplement, you should consult with your doctor before adding berberine to your system. I like to discuss it as a supplement for longevity and not just for weight loss. The verdict is still pending as to whether berberine can be a major player in the insulin resistance weight loss world, but we are seeing a lot of promising evidence that it may be helpful. As with any new use of a traditional medicine, we want to evaluate if this is the right tool for the individual. Berberine shows some promise in the world of weight loss, but it is far too soon to crown it “The Skinny Herb”.

Article was published in The Good Life magazine.

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