ANH delves into another popular anti-aging technique.
Whether searching for healing waters or buying sketchy “anti-aging” potions, the drive to turn back our biological clocks is as old as time itself. The diabetes drug metformin has been getting a lot of attention, even among non-diabetics, for its potential to help reverse aging. Does metformin really help us turn back the clock? Are there better alternatives?
Metformin derives from the French lilac, a plant recommended since 1653 for treating things like fever, pestilence, and worms. A century later, the herb was found to ease diabetes symptoms. In 1918, a scientist discovered its active ingredient guanidine lowered blood sugar, and it was first synthesized four years later. Overshadowed for decades by the discovery of insulin, metformin emerged as a popular diabetes drug in Europe in 1958. American regulators would wait until the nineties to approve it because a similar drug, phenformin, often caused lactic acidosis. Metformin is now the world’s most-prescribed oral anti-diabetes drug and 150 million people take it daily.
For diabetics, metformin enhances insulin sensitivity so the body burns more fat and sugar. It’s also been shown to help repair DNA and activate energy sensors in our cells. One of these sensors, AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), makes cells operate more efficiently, as when we were young. AMPK becomes less active as we age, a key reason we grow more susceptible to chronic disease. Because metformin fires these critical enzymes up again, experts believe it can help us stave off diseases longer, and data from people already using metformin supports that theory. There is evidence indicating that metformin can help stave off cancer, heart disease, obesity, and neurodegenerative conditions.
But we cannot forget that metformin is a drug, and these benefits can come at a cost. About a third of people taking metformin experience stomach discomfort. About three percent of new users say it makes food taste metallic. Prolonged metformin use can create vitamin B12 deficiencies and lower total testosterone levels in some diabetic men. A 2019 study raised questions about whether metformin interferes with the benefits of exercise. When researchers had two groups follow workout programs, both added muscle, but metformin users wound up gaining slightly less.
The most serious side effect, increased risk of lactic acidosis, is rare and largely limited to people with severe kidney disorders, liver failure or alcohol-use disorder. Doctors are discouraged from prescribing it to those patients. Metformin can also raise hypoglycemia risk when taken with gliclazide or injected insulin, and it can interact with certain drugs used to treat cancer, HIV and bacterial infections.
The good news is that there are natural supplements that perform many of the same anti-aging functions as metformin in terms of increasing insulin sensitivity and activating AMPK. Studies have found that berberine, for example, is comparable to metformin in its blood sugar-lowering effects. Chromium, magnesium, resveratrol, and bitter melon have also demonstrated an ability to increase insulin sensitivity. Studies have found that alpha lipoic acid (ALA) is more effective than metformin for improving insulin sensitivity.
There are also natural ways to activate AMPK, including intermittent fasting, exercise, and cold therapy. There are also a variety of supplements that act as AMPK activators, like ALA, resveratrol and other plant polyphenols, EGCG from green tea, curcumin, and more.
There is some evidence to suggest metformin can help non-diabetics with anti-aging, but the drug is not without its side effects and might not be for everyone. There are safer, natural options that perform many of the same functions as metformin in increasing insulin sensitivity.