Berberine, the Next Superstar Part 2: An Old Dog with New Tricks

Published on June 07, 2013 by Dr. Traj Nibber

The human gut contains over a thousand different types of bacterial species, yet most of this population is accounted for by just forty different species. Animal models suggest that obesity is associated with specific types of these bacterial species. For example, obese mice have different types of bacteria in their gut compared to their thin counterparts. What this means is that there is hope for us all. If we are obese, then by altering our diet and eating the right foods we can influence the growth of “favourable” bacteria and reduce the “negative” bacteria that may in turn harm us. These negative bacteria may harm us by causing excessive storage of fats and sugars and thus pushing us towards the dreaded metabolic syndrome which has now reached epidemic proportions across the world. Metabolic Syndrome is a collection of diseases, possibly having a common cause, and which involves high blood pressure, cholesterol deposits in our blood vessels (atherosclerosis), diabetes and of course obesity.

Up until now, the gut-health association has been largely ignored in terms of clinical significance, but recent scientific findings suggest otherwise, and instead emphasize the importance of dietary intervention and personal choices of food we make.

As mentioned in Part 1, both the diet and our gut microbiota greatly influence each other. To demonstrate that altered bacterial composition of the gut is a cause and not a consequence of obesity, researcher’s discovered that when a portion of the gut microbiota from obese mice was transplanted into “germ-free” mice, they noticed that these mice also became obese. Equally important, when a portion of the gut microbiota from lean mice was transplanted into germ-free mice, they too lost weight. In other words, the microbes significantly influence the phenotypes or how we look.

Many people struggle with diets and exercise, so how does one favourably improve one’s gut microbiota? First, there is no substitute for responsible eating. There is no magic pill that will make up for the wrong that is being done if one continues to consume the same bad food. Fatty foods and sucrose seem to be the top offenders in changing the microbiota for the worse. Consumption of these has to stop. However, if we change our thinking and start eating the right foods, we can go a long way in offsetting metabolic syndrome.

Second, one needs to give the proper fuel to the cells of the gut as well as the local inhabitants; these include prebiotics, some probiotics and especially fiber. Probiotics have been widely used and promoted but the science is conflicting. Some studies show benefits, others not at all. This may in large part be due to incompatibility issues between the bugs in the probiotics, where they try and kill each other. The bacteria may also not survive the harsh pH, acid, enzymatic and bile salts. Prebiotics on the other hand, do offer support to the bugs in supplying nutrients, rather than replacing them like probiotics typically do. It is the intake of fiber, which has gained significant momentum in terms of health benefits. Fiber, more than most other nutritional supplements offers the best insurance for optimal maintenance of the gut and the microbiota. Unfortunately, despite sustained efforts through educational initiatives by researchers and by the government, fiber is still met with skepticism. However, now there are a number of fibers on the market that have excellent demonstrable health benefits and consumer appeal such as the new SoluFiber, (see a video on Solufibre on www.aor.ca as well as the latest Advances issue on Digestive Health) which offers complete solubility and no odour or taste.

I would like to draw your attention to berberine, a herb that has been used for millennia in the Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine systems of India and China, which unfortunately has gained little interest in the West. Berberine is widely used for treating: infections (in the gut, eyes, as a topical and more) for high cholesterol and triglycerides, and type-2 diabetes. It is also known for having quite strong anti-cancer effects. Several studies have been published that have confirmed these claims. For example the mechanism proposed for its effects on cholesterol reduction is thought to be due to its ability to increase the number of receptors for LDL or VLDL, both of which are considered “bad” forms of cholesterol. By increasing the receptors in the liver, it is thought that these destructive cholesterol species will be taken up by the liver and thus removed from the circulation to prevent formation of plaques in the blood vessels. However, studies show that in order to achieve this berberine needs to be in sufficiently high concentration in the cells such as the liver. Unfortunately, berberine has poor bioavailability meaning it is not present in anywhere near the concentrations necessary to achieve this effect. So what is happening?

Researchers in China have discovered that perhaps the benefits of berberine are not due to increasing the number of receptors in the liver or other tissues, but through a completely different mechanism. A recent publication shows that berberine directly affects the gut microbiota which favours the “favourable” bacteria over the “unfavourable” ones. By comparing samples of the bacteria in stool samples, Dr Zhao’s group has elegantly shown that indeed berberine has a localised effect on the bacteria. It seems berberine not only increases good bacteria, but also prevents bad bacteria from flourishing. In addition, the researchers noted that berberine acts as an appetite suppressant.

This exciting research into the mechanism of action of berberine may explain all the benefits of berberine reported in terms of its ability to reduce cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. This makes berberine, and in particular a product like DeCholest from AOR, an ideal product for reducing metabolic syndrome by utilizing a unique and commonly overlooked pathway namely, establishing a healthy gut microbiota which is conducive to assisting one with weight loss and overall health.