The claims are enticing. “Helps decrease belly fat.” “Improves ovulation.” “Prevents recurring UTIs.” “Reduces inflammation levels.” “Lowers cholesterol.” “Improves depression.”
These splashy promises don’t appear on the side of a bottle, a billboard, or a TV commercial. Instead, they come from social media posts from regular people gushing about their new favorite dietary supplement: a chemical called berberine. They’ve nicknamed the product “nature’s Ozempic,” a play on the popular type 2 diabetes drug that became a phenomenon when it was discovered to cause weight loss. One prominent berberine booster on TikTok calls it “natures ozempyyy” and swears that it has reduced his food cravings. The popularity of these videos has translated into a major surge in sales this summer. Thorne, a supplement company selling the product, told WIRED that its berberine sales increased 275 percent from May to June.
Berberine isn’t new. It’s been an ingredient in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and can be found in a variety of plants, including barberry, a shrub with tart berries, and goldenseal, a perennial herb with a thick, knotty root. But as the Ozempic craze took off, berberine’s devotees began talking it up as a kind of kinder, gentler alternative to prescription medications. Now, Western wellness types, who take it a la carte in pill form, evangelize for it enthusiastically. “I can’t think of another example where something has gone viral to this extent,” says Craig Hopp, a deputy division director at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the National Institutes of Health office tasked with researching alternative medicines.
Amid all this hoopla, one specific claim about berberine got my attention. I saw it over and over: “Lowers blood sugar.” It was as if the algorithms knew precisely what would push me over the edge to actually purchase the stuff. I developed gestational diabetes a few years ago; to keep my blood sugar in check, I followed a carb-restricted diet and went through my pregnancy staring longingly at bagels and pricking my finger three times a day. It sucked. Now, with an increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes, I’ll do just about anything to avoid it. After a few consecutive nights getting served these giddy pro-berberine videos, I ordered two different kinds of berberine capsules online. What was the harm? It was natural, after all.
They arrived on my doorstep the next day. One bottle contained 200-milligram capsules of berberine, while the second contained pills with berberine and cinnamon, divided into 2,000-milligram capsules. The first option touted “GI support” and “immune support.” The second highlighted its gluten-free, “non-GMO” formulation.
Shaking the pills out onto my palm, it was impossible to tell which was which—they were both translucent, oblong, and filled with a yellow powder that resembles turmeric. Yet despite their identical appearances, they were very different dosages. I had no idea which one to take.
Instead of swallowing either pill, I called Cassandra Quave, a doctor and research scientist who studies medicinal plants, to ask whether berberine was even wise to take at all.