Anytime a pricey new drug that solves a common health issue hits the market, hype about “budget” or “natural” versions inevitably follows, cropping up on social media or package labels.
Not surprisingly, this has happened in a major way since the advent of the popular weight loss and diabetes drug semaglutide, sold under the brand names Ozempic, Wegovy, and Rybelsus.
Of course, a multitude of inexpensive weight loss supplements preceded semaglutide. “Numerous herbal and natural supplements claim to assist with weight loss, including caffeine, green tea extract, magnesium, garcinia cambogia, chitosan, conjugated linoleic acid, guar gum, and even laxatives,” says Christopher McGowan, MD, of True You Weight Loss in Cary, North Carolina, and a diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine. (As with other board certifications, the diplomate of ABOM credential means a doctor has completed continuing education in weight management medicine — a field long neglected in medical school training.)
But the wild popularity of semaglutide drugs has given rise to social media claims that certain supplements are Ozempic “alternatives” or “dupes.” Two stand out: berberine, sometimes referred to as “nature’s Ozempic,” and psyllium husk, aka “poor man’s Ozempic.”
But do these Ozempic alternatives really aid weight loss? And whether or not they do, are they safe to take?
Why People May Use Budget Ozempics
It’s not hard to see why Ozempic substitutes appeal to many would-be semaglutide users. In general, supplements are easier to access and far less expensive than prescription Ozempic, which without insurance costs over $900 a month for weekly injections, according to Novo Nordisk, Ozempic’s maker.
“Our current system limits access to comprehensive obesity care, including limited access to FDA-approved medications that do show significant benefits and safety for the treatment of obesity,” says Jonathan D. Parker, DO, an Alabama-based obesity medicine specialist and a board member of the American Board of Obesity Medicine. “This drives many over-the-counter alternatives as patients seek treatment.”
Plus, dietary supplements may offer a “natural” vibe that many people prefer because of reservations about the potential downsides of semaglutide. These can include anything from common side effects like indigestion or nausea to longer-term issues like malnutrition from low food intake or a potentially heightened risk of thyroid cancer.
Is Berberine Really Nature’s Ozempic?
Berberine is a supplement derived from shrubs such as barberry, Oregon grape, and tree turmeric. It’s most commonly sold in capsules, but you may also find it as a powder. Berberine activates an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which helps regulate metabolism and lower blood glucose levels — hence its “nature’s Ozempic” nickname.
To understand berberine’s attraction, look no further than its price tag: A monthlong supply retails for $20–$30.
Plus the evidence of berberine’s benefits is limited. “Unfortunately, most studies that evaluated [berberine’s] outcomes are small, nonrandomized, and prone to bias. In other words, the currently available evidence is insufficient to support most health claims attributed to berberine,” says Dr. McGowan.
Still, berberine is a relatively low-risk supplement to try. “In my opinion, berberine is generally safe and well tolerated, with GI side effects being the most common complaint,” Parker says.
Why Is Psyllium Husk Called the Poor Man’s Ozempic?
Another common Ozempic alternative, psyllium husk doesn’t work via any complicated metabolic pathway. It’s simply a fiber supplement derived from the seeds of plants in the genus Pantago. (You may recognize it from digestive supplements like Metamucil, which is used for occasional constipation.)
For most people, it’s hard to go wrong getting more fiber. But psyllium husk could have downsides. You may experience side effects like bloating or diarrhea. Take it with at least 8 ounces of water, and drink plenty of water throughout the day, to make this less likely.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, Parker says obesity is a chronic condition best managed in collaboration with your healthcare team. Together, you can decide which supplements, if any, to include in your treatment plan.