Metformin, a “wonder drug” that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995, is best known for its reputation as a treatment for type 2 diabetes. It’s also showing promise for helping people struggling to lose weight, with a connection between metformin and weight loss being found in many cases. A large body of research has already helped metformin establish its reputation as a diabetes treatment, and even as a potential protector against Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Further research has even found that metformin has some anti-aging benefits. Recently, though, experts are looking at one of its side effects in particular: weight loss.
It will be no surprise to many health experts that a treatment for diabetes and weight loss are closely correlated. The American Diabetes Association recommends weight loss as one of the key prevention strategies for type 2 diabetes. With almost 40 percent of the U.S. adult population considered obese, this is a serious concern. While diet and exercise are chief recommendations for diabetes prevention, metformin might soon become part of a comprehensive prevention strategy. Metformin’s efficacy likely stems from its role in fighting insulin resistance and several studies show a correlation between insulin resistance and obesity.
Enzymes And Metformin
Much of the credit for metformin’s success can be attributed to the drug’s ability to activate 5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK). AMPK is a fuel-sensing enzyme relevant in all tissues with antioxidant-like tendencies that can burn abdominal fat, reduce inflammation, increase energy on a cellular level, and more.
The energy-regulating AMPK 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 — and even in non-diabetics.
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 pounds and showed significantly lower blood sugar levels. Another study found that metformin reduced body weight, insulin resistance, and body mass index (BMI) in patients on antipsychotic medications like olanzapine and risperidone.
Researchers of this drug have also conducted clinical trials on obese but otherwise healthy people (non-diabetics), from teenagers to aging individuals. One trial examined a group of 10- to 16-year-olds who took either a placebo or 2,000 mg of metformin every day for 18 months. The placebo group gained nearly 4.5 pounds in fat mass while the metformin group lost nearly half a pound. Meanwhile, another trial found that aging women with midlife weight gain who took metformin for 12 months experienced a loss of 11.6 pounds on average and a significant decrease in body fat percentage.
Carrie Gessler, a nurse practitioner, explains the mechanisms: “Metformin helps decrease liver glucose production, decreases intestinal absorption of glucose, and, most importantly, increases sensitivity to your own insulin production.”
Gessler further explains,“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.” As a result, she considers prescribing metformin as an anti-aging aid. “Some patients will obviously respond more exuberantly than others.”
Although metformin has helped some people lose weight, it isn’t proven to help everyone, nor should it be considered a magical quick fix. Every study mentioned here concludes that metformin is associated with gradual weight loss, which varies individually. Also, this use of the drug is considered off-label, meaning it is not FDA-approved as a weight-loss aid even though the drug itself is FDA-approved. For those with diabetes and insulin resistance, it does show promise for helping with weight loss.
Berberine: A Natural Alternative
Berberine, a phytochemical found in many plants, has also shown similar positive effects in trials with diabetes patients. Two plants that can be used for berberine are goldenseal and barberry; it’s also found in Coptis chinensis, which is a Chinese folk remedy for diabetes. In one study, 36 adults recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes were given either berberine or metformin for three months. Researchers found that both metformin and berberine had similar effects on blood glucose. However, berberine had a positive effect on triglycerides, while metformin had no effect. Lower levels of triglycerides in the bloodstream is correlated with weight loss as well as improved heart health.
While the potential for metformin to help with weight loss is promising, experts remind us that there is never a replacement for a healthy lifestyle. Consuming a diet low in sugar, keeping fit, controlling stress, and ensuring adequate sleep continues to be vital for health. Anyone seeking to explore the use of metformin should first consult with their healthcare provider to see if it’s right for them.
Meredith Minor is a freelance writer, dance teacher, avid reader and wife from Nashville, TN.
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