Michelle is a licensed herbalist and acupuncturist practicing in Chapel Hill, NC, at Chapel Hill Acupuncture.
Berberine comes from several herbs
Main sources of berberine
Berberine is an isolated constituent found in the roots and rhizomes of some herbs. This article focuses on the Chinese herbs huang bai (Phellodendron amurense) and huang lian (Coptidis or Coptis rhizome), and their unique healing properties. Other botanicals containing berberine include oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium), goldenseal ((Hydrastis canadensis), and tree turmeric (Berberis aristata). The main health benefits of berberine are outlined herein, and if you choose to try the supplement, I recommend investigating further by consulting an herbal guide, or seeking an actual herbalist in your area. Recommended resources for both are listed at the end of this article.
Berberine description and benefits
Berberine is an alkaloid. Without getting overly scientific, an alkaloid is a substance that is produced by proteins in the plant and has many functions including storing nitrogen, and protecting the plant from disease or exposure to the elements. Some famous plant-derived alkaloids include morphine, cocaine, and quinidine (Sayhet et al., 2017).
Many drugs used to control pain, regulate heart rhythm, reduce blood sugar, and control inflammation can be traced to alkaloids. These are mostly synthesized nowadays, but the knowledge of the crude plant is considered very valuable and essential, and in fact, is considered the "basis of pharmaceutical sciences" (Sayhet et al., 2017, para 12).
Modern methods isolate berberine from the plant
Berberine is the chemical isolate of the whole plant, not a whole herb. It is extracted from the plant and dried as a powder, then encapsulated for use as a supplement. This is one of the more convenient ways to obtain it.
Chinese medicine sources of berberine
Coptis (huang lian) and Phellodendron (huang bai)
Both coptis and phellodendron "drain damp heat," and treat all types of infectious disease. Both of these are colloquially termed "big yellows" for the dark, indian yellow coloration that is contained within the plant, and revealed in all of its sticky and resinous glory upon slicing it open.
Coptis and phellodendron contain berberine plus other vital constituents
Coptis, known as huang lian, contains safe levels of berberine to treat gastrointestinal distress. It should be pointed out that coptis also contains antibacterial, antiviral, cardioprotective, and antidiabetic effects (Wang et al., 2019).
Coptis can be taken as a single herb, and is readily available through many online herbal retailers. It is recommended for diarrhea, colitis, and toothache. In Chinese medicine, coptis clears Stomach heat, and is also an astringent herb. Stomach heat is a diagnostic condition whereby heat engendered by sluggish digestive processes leads to mouth sores, toothache, nausea, intestinal cramping, to name a few. Astringent herbs are able to clear the type of heat that lingers and can become almost malignant when left unchecked (Dharmananda, 2010).
Phellodendron, known as huang bai, is also a source of berberine. It is used in Chinese medicine for "damp heat in the lower jiao (burner)," whereby it is able to clear heat and infection from the pelvic organs. It is well known for its use in treating urinary tract infection, colitis, and pelvic inflammatory disease (Hempen & Fischer, 2009).
Finding an Herbalist
Before purchasing Chinese herbs, it is advisable to seek a consultation with an herbalist trained in Chinese medicine. You can use the NCCAOM website linked below in "Resources" to find licensed practitioners, or do an online search in your local area. Chinese herbalists are usually also trained in acupuncture, so that offers another avenue to explore for healing.
An experienced herbalist is very important when addressing chronic conditions as these require more attentive diagnostic skills, and the patient should be monitored for possible changes to the single or combined herbals being prescribed.
Reasons to choose Chinese herbal medicine
Older cultures had an acquired understanding about herbs as medicine, and knew about the properties of the plant in terms of its innate characteristics, and also how the plants affected each part of the human body. Both huang lian and huang bai fall into the category of herbs that are bitter and cold, and enter certain channels (meridians) thereby affecting conditions that either lie within the corresponding organ, or within the parameters of the organ via its branches. For example, a condition of Stomach heat would be ascertained by skilled observation of the pulse, tongue, and signs/symptoms. These methods work very well in identifying the causative factors, without the need for lab tests.
Of course, combining the best of east and west is always recommended. It is important to assess functions of the liver and kidneys via standard laboratory values whenever there is a chronic condition, whether this be related to pain, digestion, immunity, or other imbalances. Traditional methods are not able to measure blood labs, and should not be relied upon exclusively for any chronic condition. It is always a good idea to have your physician check these values to ensure that you are not in any danger.
Taste is telling
Bitter tasting herbs and roots "drain downward" helping to relieve the gut of any toxic substance. Bitter tonics consist of herbs combined with a bit of alcohol and even to this day are taken at the end of the meal to improve digestion and peristalsis. The bitter taste on the tongue actually stimulates release of saliva to improve digestion. Bitter foods and herbs can also help to release bile from the gallbladder to improve breakdown of fats.
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Expanding use of berberine via eastern and western understanding
In more recent years, microscopic analyses have shown that the alkaloids, glycosides, and flavonoids contained in bitter-tasting herbs refers to their anti-inflammatory and anti-infectious effects (Dharmananda, 2010).
Before microscopic analyses, native healers understood the properties of these "big yellow" herbs by their taste, and other characteristics defined by healers of the day. They may well have enjoyed a much richer understanding than we may ever grasp since sadly much of this wisdom was either not recorded, or has been lost.
Fortunately, there are valuable doctrines and materia medica that have survived. In the Chinese materia medica, for example, individual herbs as well as formulas are painstakingly described in terms of their taste, temperature, and channel.
One herb to treat many conditions and many herbs to treat one condition
This is a famous precept of Chinese herbal medicine. Chinese herbs are often combined into formulas to address the various symptoms of a condition, with reverence granted to each individual herb for its unique properties and benefits, and how it interacts with other herbs in a given formula.
For example, Coptis Decoction to Relieve Toxicity contains 4 herbal ingredients, all in the "heat clearing" category per Chinese materia medica, to treat a wide variety of infectious disease including boils, fever, UTI, hypertension, itching, and more. Stabilize the Menses pill contains skullcap along with 5 other herbs to treat heavy uterine bleeding during the menses.
An experienced herbalist is able to detect the underlying root of the problem, as well as the symptoms, and is also able to adjust the formula contents as the condition changes.
The way to take berberine as a supplement
Capsules of the alkaloid derivative versus the whole herb
Berberine is easily obtained as a supplement. Through a process of water extraction, the alkaloid is processed and encapsulated. This form is suitable for treating many conditions, especially gut inflammatory issues such as gastroenteritis and slowed peristalsis.
Another, perhaps preferred, form of berberine is in the form of the whole herb. The extraction process is similar to that performed by pharmaceutical companies in that a water extraction is the prime means of obtaining the "essence" of the herb. The main difference is that in the Chinese method the whole herb or plant is utilized (Chinese patent medicine, 2019).
This method of using the whole herb provides a more balanced effect, since the whole plant contains all types of substances that ensure health within the plant itself. This protection is passed on to the human consuming it.
There are many distributors selling the single herb coptis. A reputable source is Plum Flower brand, available on Amazon and other sites, manufactured by Mayway Herbs. This is also an American company that has been around for over 30 years and sells to many Chinese medicine practitioners.
Herbal studies that advocate for berberine supplemental use
One of the most promising benefits of berberine-containing supplements such as coptis (huang lian) and phellodendron (huang bai) is their ability to lower blood sugar and lipids. Dyslipidemia is a condition that arises when blood sugars are unstable, and there is an abnormal number of fats in the blood. It is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart attack and stroke. One study of 32 dyslipidemic patients showed that taking 500 mg/day of berberine decreased total cholesterol by 29 percent, LDL by 25 percent, and triglycerides by 35 percent in 3 months (Zhang et al., 2008).
A recent study also showed that Coptis suppressed tumor growth of the most common form of brain cancer, and may prolong survival time (Li, J. et al., 2017).
Herbs stand the test of time
Herbs were one of the first medicines used. The ability to identify, combine, and prescribe herbal roots, leaves, and other parts of plants was considered a skill in olden days. Many of the first healers had this ability, and were honored in their communities for easing pain, reducing symptoms, and healing diseases.
Herbs and plants are natural and medicinal substances that withstand sweeps in climate and environment, and continue to thrive. They exert these same powers in our bodies by boosting energy, dredging the blood circulation to remove toxins while at the same time preserving healthy tissue. In my mind, nothing can compare to the efficacy and value of herbal medicines.
Herbal use is regaining popularity
Herbal use is growing in popularity. A recent survey conducted by the Council for Responsible Nutrition shows that over 73 percent of Americans use dietary supplements. Of these, herbals and botanicals are used by approximately 39 percent of all adults, and is growing (CRN survey, 2019).
This growth undoubtedly has to do with the increasing endorsement of herbs by physicians, also a relatively recent phenomenon. Many European journals (especially German medical journals not widely read by Americans) have supported the use of herbs for decades, and at this time, Germany is ahead of the game.
In the U.S. progress has not been as rapid. As one author states, there has been a "small but steady stream of articles about the irresponsible use of herbs..." (Castleman & Hendler, 1995, p. 4) and that "most American doctors are unfamiliar with the vast scientific literature demonstrating herbs' safety and effectiveness for an enormous number of ills" (Castleman & Hendler, 1995, p. 4).
Fortunately, this is changing as more studies are now making their way into American medical journals. The internet and journal databases such as Science Direct and Pubmed are some popular resources that allow the sharing of international clinical studies, as well as articles and publications, sourced from university and esteemed experts in their fields.
Castleman, M. & Hendler, S. (1995). The Healing Herbs: The ultimate guide to the curative power of nature's medicines. New York: Bantam Books.
Chinese patent medicine. (2019). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_patent_medicine
Dharmananda, S. (2010). Taste and action of Chinese herbs: Traditional and modern viewpoints. [Online Database]. Retrieved from http://www.itmonline.org/articles/taste_action/taste_action_herbs.htm
Dietary Supplement Use Reaches All-Time High [Council for Responsible Nutrition survey]. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.crnusa.org/newsroom/dietary-supplement-use-reaches-all-time-high-available-purchase-consumer-survey-reaffirms
Hempen, C. & Fischer, T. (2009). A Materia Medica for Chinese medicine. London: Elsevier Publishing.
Li, J., Ni L., Li B., Wang, M., Ding, Zl, Xiong, C., & Lu, X. (2017). Coptis Chinensis affects the function of glioma cells through the down-regulation of phosphorylation of STAT3 by reducing HDAC3. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 17. 524. doi: 10.1186/s12906-017-2029-0
Sayhan, H., Beyaz, S. & Çeliktaş, A. (2017). The Local Anesthetic and Pain Relief Activity of Alkaloids [Abstract]. doi:10.5772/intechopen.69847.
Wang, J., Wang, L., Lou, G., Zeng, H., Hu, J., Huang, Q., Peng, W., & Yang, X. (2019). Coptidis Rhizoma: a comprehensive review of its traditional uses, botany, phytochemistry, pharmacology and toxicology [Abstract]. Pharmaceutical Biology. 57(1). p. 193-225. doi: 10.1080/13880209.2019.1577466
Zhang, X., Li, X., Zou, D., Liu., W., Yang, J., Zhu, N., Huo, L.,...Ning, G. (2008). Treatment of type 2 diabetes and dyslipidemia with the natural plant alkaloid berberine. [Abstract]. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 93(7), 2559-65. doi: 10.1210/jc.2007-2404
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.