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For many people with diabetes, metformin is a lifesaver. Today, this popular medicine that helps control blood sugar levels is proven to be an ally for anyone seeking better health. Stable blood sugar levels are so important to health; they support optimal body function and help us avoid diseases like diabetes, which means they also slow the aging process. To understand metformin’s full benefits, however, it’s useful to know a little about how the body manages blood sugar.
Blood sugar, or glucose, is the primary sugar found in the blood and the body’s main energy source. Glucose is created during the process of digesting food and is transported, through the blood, to all of the body’s cells to use for energy. Insulin—a hormone secreted by the pancreas—helps the glucose enter the cells. There are two possible diagnoses with glucose imbalances—hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia.
When blood sugar is too low, the diagnosis is hypoglycemia. Symptoms include fatigue, heart palpitations, paleness, irritability, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety. If untreated, hypoglycemia can lead to seizures and loss of consciousness.
If blood sugar is too high, on the other hand, the diagnosis is hyperglycemia, which is associated with diabetes. Symptoms include increased thirst, frequent urination, blurred vision, headache, fatigue, dry mouth, weakness, confusion, nausea, and vomiting. Persistent hyperglycemia also damages organs and tissues, which increases the risk of heart diseases and stroke, kidney disease, vision problems, and nerve problems. If untreated, hyperglycemia can lead to death.
In addition to increasing the risk of disease, hyperglycemia accelerates the creation of advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs). Advanced glycation endproducts are damaged fats and proteins that age body tissues (including the skin) and worsen degenerative diseases.
In addition to regulating blood sugar, how can metformin help? There are three specific ways:
- It increases the body’s sensitivity and response to insulin.
- It helps reduce the amount of glucose extracted from foods and absorbed into the bloodstream, so there is less glucose overall for the body to process.
- It reduces the total amount of glucose released by the liver, which leads to an overall reduction of glucose in the bloodstream.
Because metformin promotes better glucose utilization in the tissues, it reduces the accumulation of advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs). Metformin also protects critical molecules such as proteins and DNA while stimulating the production of glutathione—a powerful and crucial antioxidant—which inhibits the breakdown of tissues and aids in reducing cell damage. In this way, metformin demonstrates protective effects against osteoarthritis and cardiovascular concerns and has anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, metformin can assist in promoting gene repair, which is crucial for avoiding genetic disorders and diseases with a genetic component, like cancer, heart disease, and obesity. As an added benefit, people with diabetes who take metformin regularly experience a decrease in their total level of cholesterol and triglycerides.
And its benefits do not stop there. As it relates to the skin, metformin blocks the effects of progerin—a type of protein responsible, in part, for the unsightly signs of aging, such as sagging skin, fine lines, and wrinkles!
The idea for metformin dates back to medieval times. People ate the plant Galega officinalis, also known as Goat’s rue, or French lilac, to relieve frequent urination. However, the plant could be toxic, especially to livestock; so scientists began their search for a safer version. Eventually, in 1922, researchers in Dublin synthesized metformin or dimethyl biguanide. The new form was safe and easier on the digestive tract than earlier compounds but lost out to insulin in terms of the first-choice treatment of diabetes. This trend changed in the 1990s when research continued to show that metformin, used correctly, was safe and effective.
Who can benefit best from metformin today? The automatic answer is people with diabetes and anyone diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome and gestational diabetes. In 2008, a panel for the American Diabetes Association concluded that doctors should also consider metformin for patients who are severely obese or those with prediabetes—blood sugar above normal but not yet in range for diabetes. And because people who are taking metformin seem to have lower rates of pancreas, colon, and liver cancers, researchers are eagerly investigating metformin for cancer prevention.
The main recommendation for preventing diabetes and other chronic health conditions is eating a high-quality plant-based diet, losing weight, getting plenty of sleep and exercise, and cultivating fulfilling relationships. Now, we have another tool that can help those who need even more support to lead a healthier life—metformin.
Ehrenfeld, T. (2015, November 25). The History of the Diabetes Drug Metformin. Medhost. https://www.yourcareeverywhere.com/health-research/health-insights/diabetes-care-insights/the-history-of-the-diabetes-drug-metformin.html
Fletcher, M. (2020, February 10). How Your Body Handles Excess Glucose. https://www.livestrong.com/article/264767-how-is-excess-glucose-stored/
Gómez, R., Mokhashi, M. H., Rao, J., Vargas, A., Compton, T., McCarter, R., & Chalew, S. A. (2002). Metformin adjunctive therapy with insulin improves glycemic control in patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus: a pilot study. Journal of pediatric endocrinology & metabolism : JPEM, 15(8), 1147–1151. https://doi.org/10.1515/jpem.2002.15.8.1147
Hu, D., Xie, F., Xiao, Y., Lu, C., Zhong, J., Huang, D., Chen, J., Wei, J., Jiang, Y., & Zhong, T. (2021). Metformin: A Potential Candidate for Targeting Aging Mechanisms. Aging and disease, 12(2), 480–493. https://doi.org/10.14336/AD.2020.0702
Lv, Z., & Guo, Y. (2020). Metformin and Its Benefits for Various Diseases. Frontiers in endocrinology, 11, 191. https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2020.00191