Chinese, Korean and Australian scientists administered the herb -- traditionally used to treat diarrhea and heal wounds -- to rats and found that after three weeks, the rats' blood sugar levels had dropped by 50 percent.
Diabetes is largely brought on by poor lifestyle choices that result in too much glucose in the blood which prevents insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar, from properly doing its job. The researchers' study, published in the journal Diabetes, says that berberine helps insulin work more efficiently so that it can successfully lower levels of blood sugar.
Conventional medical doctors usually treat the disease with pharmaceuticals such as metformin and thiazolidinedione, which can have harmful side effects. Professor David James, head of Garvan's diabetes and obesity research program, says drug firms and the medical community recognize the need for safer alternatives to traditional diabetes drugs.
"There's a tremendous need for new therapies and here we are with a new one on the table," says James. "This is very exciting because clearly (diabetes is) a growing problem and now we're looking at a new weapon in our armory in the fight against it."
"Type 2 diabetes is easily managed or even outright cured with natural medicine," added Mike Adams, a consumer health advocate. "Berberine is only the latest in a long line of herbs with documented blood sugar lowering effects, including cinnamon, gymnema, banaba, bitter melon and many others."