This "wonder drug" has unexpected anti-aging benefits
Metformin, colloquially known as a “wonder drug,” has been offering relief of symptoms associated with diabetes since the middle ages. Back in those days, you could find metformin in the form of French lilac (Galega officinalis), but today it is commonly known as the small white pill that helps to delay and prevent diabetes. Metformin, however, also has some notable anti-aging benefits and may actually hold the potential to delaying aging and lengthening one’s life.
Evidence from several animal-based studies suggest that metformin offers more health benefits than most of us thought; it has the potential to better our overall health, contribute to weight loss, and even slow aging. Metformin, which was approved by the FDA in 1995, is lesser-known for its anti-aging benefits, but these benefits should not be overlooked. Below is everything you need to know about Metformin for anti-aging.
This multifaceted drug is thought to be influential in cellular and metabolic processes such as oxidative damage, inflammation, and apoptosis — each of which is a key player in the development of age-related diseases.
Metformin’s anti-aging benefits include but are not limited to: better cognitive function, decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease, and decreased cancer incidence. These beneficial aging inhibitors are attributed to metformin’s ability to activate AMPK. AMPK is a fuel-sensing enzyme relevant in all tissue with antioxidant-like tendencies that can burn abdominal fat, reduce inflammation, increase energy on a cellular level, and more.
Clinical and observational trials conducted over the past 20 years have started to unpack exactly what metformin could do for non-diabetics, but researchers haven’t narrowed their focus to aging until recently. A groundbreaking FDA clinical trial entitled Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME) will assess the effects of metformin on 3,000 elderly people during a six-year period.
Dr. Nir Barzilai, the Director of Institute on Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Steven N. Austad, the head of the biology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, are leading the study in hopes that metformin will delay the onset and progression of several age-related diseases such as dementia, heart disease, and cancers. Unlike common drug studies, TAME researchers are using metformin to target fundamental aging factors (chronic inflammation, cellular degradation, etc.) so that they can delay or prevent the development of all age-related diseases at the same time.
Although many headlines claim this study will help humans live longer, it will still be some time before the results of this radical approach are released. In the meantime, however, here are four of the age-delaying benefits of metformin that brought TAME to life.
1. Reduces the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
According to the CDC, 1 in 4 deaths are attributed to heart disease in the United States, and its most common cause is atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries.” Luckily, metformin, with the help of AMPK, may slow the development of atherosclerosis. Studies show that metformin slows early-onset atherosclerosis by activating AMPK and mitigating LDL oxidation. Metformin may also reduce the conversion of harmless monocytes — a type of white blood cell — to fatty macrophages, the key cells associated with the development of atherosclerotic plaques. Fewer macrophages means a reduced accumulation of them on vessel walls. Moreover, the drug may offer protection for endothelial cells that line coronary arteries and supply blood to the heart (at least in animals). This protection is important because endothelial dysfunction can lead to several of the major causes of heart disease: atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, diminished circulation, and thrombosis.
2. Metformin Helps With Weight Control
It’s commonly believed that weight loss and weight control is more challenging as we get older. Metformin is known for fighting weight gain, and much of the credit can be attributed to AMPK. Remember that this energy regulator has a hand in many key metabolic functions and cellular behaviors such as burning fat instead of storing it, eliminating toxic cell contents, and removing sugar from the blood.
Research already concludes that, with the help of AMPK, metformin can significantly reduce body fat in some diabetics, but the drug has also helped non-diabetics lose weight. For instance, one study found that women with polycystic ovary syndrome who were given 850 mg of metformin twice daily for six months lost an average of 9.24 pound and showed significantly lower blood sugar levels.
Nurse practitioner Carrie Gessler explains that metformin helps people lose weight for several reasons. “Metformin helps decrease liver glucose production, decreases intestinal absorption of glucose, and, most importantly, increases sensitivity to your own insulin production,” Gessler says. And because your body is able to process sugars more effectively, metformin users “will most likely experience weight loss of 5 to 10 pounds,” she add.
“When we are young, let’s say less than 40 years old, our bodies do the things above, generally, more automatically, provided we don’t have chronic health issues,” Gessler says. As a result, she considers prescribing metformin to “anyone starting to face the stress of aging,” and adds that “some patients will obviously respond more exuberantly than others.”It won’t help everyone lose weight, and there are no guarantees, but positive results have been seen.
3. Protects Against Cognitive Impairment and Neurodegenerative Diseases
Several animals — in vitro — and human studies show that metformin may have neuroprotective effects. A 2016 pilot study showed that taking 1,000 mg of metformin twice daily for a year improved memory recall in participants with amnestic mild cognitive impairment, which is a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease. As with cardiovascular disease, much of the literature on metformin as a protectant for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s focuses on metformin’s ability to activate AMPK. AMPK is able to clean the “junk” that contributes to brain cell death out of your cells. For example, metformin may reduce levels of alpha synuclein, a protein common in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients that can build up (in the form of “Lewy Bodies”) and cause cell damage and death. Researchers have even linked the drug to better motor coordination in mice with Parkinson’s. Dr. Kim Langdon, physician, and writer for Parenting Pod, says that metformin also has “anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that are important in mediating epileptic seizures.”
A 2014 animal study concluded that metformin may be an agent for the treatment of epilepsy and as a protective medicine against the cognitive impairments that seizures create. Although all of this research is promising, it is not yet known whether it will translate to humans.
4. Decreases Cancer Incidence
Most of metformin’s anti-cancer properties are associated with its ability to inhibit the mTOR pathway, which plays a huge role in cancer metabolism, growth, and proliferation. Numerous studies associate the drug with a reduction in, and prevention, of many types of cancer, including prostate, stomach, colon, head and neck, and non-small cell lung cancer.
For instance, one study’s results showed that metformin users experienced a 55 percent decrease in the risk of stomach cancer compared to non-metformin users. While a systematic review and meta-analysis, which included 27 clinical trials, found that people with early-stage colon and rectum cancers who used metformin had a 42 percent increase in cancer-specific survival and a 31 percent increase overall. Researchers have also conducted studies on mice and rats that assessed metformin’s influence on cancer incidence (how many subjects are diagnosed with a particular type of cancer) in 17 different organs. A review stated that 86 percent of these studies concluded metformin hindered the development of cancer and showed zero indication that it can cause cancer.
As further research produces more findings on metformin’s anti-aging and age-delaying benefits, we will soon discover even more ways this “wonder drug” can potentially fight the process of aging.
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