Metformin and Diabetes: Trouble in Paradise
Popular Drug Damages Your Cells But Fasting Delivers Energy
Jessica came to see me because she had been diagnosed with a condition that is becoming more and more common – PCOS. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a problem of the adrenal glands that causes:
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Easy fatiguing
- And even diabetes
Jessica was prescribed a diabetes medication called metformin (tradename Glucophage) that seems to help metabolic problems. It also allows people to burn fat so they stop gaining weight.
This drug is a first-line therapy for Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) and has been used for many years. It has the effect of making the body more sensitive to insulin and blocking the liver from putting out more sugar. The net effect of this is to lower blood sugar levels.
However, metformin’s specific action reaches deeper into your cells. It blocks the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cells of your body, from using sugar efficiently. When cells are unable to use sugar, they must switch to fat-burning mode. With the ability to burn fat, the body has lower sugar levels and can actually lose weight!
The effect of metformin has been trumpeted for many years. Metformin:
- Decreases blood glucose
- Increases fat use
- Prevents kidney problems
- Improves PCOS in women
- Prevents diabetes
- Lowers cancer rates 
Because of these effects metformin is now being considered and used for many conditions including:
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Cancers of all types
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
- Metabolic Syndrome X
Indeed, as one of my professors stated, it seems that metformin should be “included in the drinking water.” Everyone would supposedly benefit. Many without diabetes, PCOS, or even pre-diabetes are taking it to prevent diabetes and cancer.
Beware of Treating Disease with Metformin
All of the symptoms and diseases treated by metformin have one thing in common: they are all diseases of metabolism, or energy production. These conditions actually result when energy is not properly made in the body. Adding metformin to those cells that need sugar makes them less efficient. They can’t make energy!
This is why people with diabetes develop Alzheimer’s disease, kidney failure, amputations, and nerve damage. In spite of having lots of sugar, they are unable to metabolize it.
The problem with taking metformin is that it blocks the proper use of sugar. Some tissues need sugar to function. So when your body is already impaired, withholding cell energy can cause further damage to the liver, kidneys, brain, vision, and muscles.
The list of “side-effects,” or better said, toxic effects, of metformin include:
- Stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, or constipation
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Taste problems
- Trouble breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Fingernail and/or toenail disease
- Flu-like symptoms
- Heart throbbing or pounding
- Muscle pain
- Redness of face and neck
- Increased blood acidity due to high levels of lactic acid
- Low blood sugar
- Megaloblastic anemia
These are just the symptoms of the toxic effects of metformin; the underlying cause is the lack of energy production. Basically, cells treated with metformin become energetically inefficient. As a result, your mitochondria, which manage your cell’s energy, become poisoned. Lead, mercury, arsenic, and cyanide, are known to have similar disturbing side effects on your cells.
Not all who take metformin have this unique set of horrible toxic side effects. But it is important to know that there is a risk to taking it. Much of the time, patients with diabetes or other conditions are given the medication without being told about its toxicity.
Metformin and Type 2 Diabetes
The hallmark of T2D is an overload of sugar, which makes it toxic. Anything we get too much of can poison the systems of our body. Yes, we can get too much of a good thing. When we eat more than we need for the day, we store the extra as fat and glycogen. Eventually the energy production of the body gets sluggish. The systems designed to regulate and manage your body become inefficient. We feel weak, fatigued, tired and listless. Even though every cell stores millions of calories and many pounds of fat are reserved under the skin, metabolic energy is inaccessible due to overload of sugar.
Many blame their thyroid because low thyroid can cause similar symptoms. However, these symptoms almost always point to an overload of a sluggish energy system. This happens because the sugar system is inefficient, and extra insulin blocks the fat system. We call this “insulin resistance.”
When given metformin, it blocks the cells’ ability to use sugar and stimulates the use of fat. This allows more sugar into the already bloated cells. It also prevents the muscles from getting energy from their stored glycogen, which can cause them to die of starvation. It might seem to make sense to treat the overload of energy by starving the cells. It may work temporarily, but ultimately these cells die of starvation while swimming in energy. It would be like a person dying of thirst in a swimming pool because he was afraid of drowning.
Metformin and Type 1 Diabetes
A deficiency of insulin does not allow sugar into the cells and they starve of energy. Before the discovery of insulin, people died of starvation from T1D (type 1 diabetes). They couldn’t use the sugar so they would switch to fat-burning. When they ran out of fat, they started burning protein, and when there was no more protein, they died.
Long ago, people with “honey urine” (type 1 diabetes) ate high fat diets to keep them alive. Now we can give them insulin and they can live an almost normal life. However, some are saying type 1 diabetics should take metformin to block the liver from making sugar and help keep their sugar down. While this sounds good, it would be a disaster on the cellular level! With the imminent threat of starving cells, it is unwise to use a chemical that can further disturb energy production.
Studies indicate that metformin side-effects, especially hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), are more likely in T1D, with hardly any blood sugar benefit.
Metformin and PCOS
Polycystic ovary syndrome is primarily a hormone abnormality that is commonly inherited. The adrenal and other glands have abnormal responses to stimuli that cause either too much or too little of certain hormones. Cortisol tends to be excessive, as is testosterone. High cortisol and testosterone hormones prohibit other hormones from being produced or used. The net effect on the metabolism is insulin resistance (because of excess cortisol) and even diabetes.
Metformin has been a first-line medication for this problem because it effectively blocks excess cortisol. However, it is important to note that it works only on the symptoms of cortisol excess, while allowing the disease to progress.
In women with PCOS, high insulin levels can cause the ovaries to make more androgen hormones such as testosterone. Metformin affects the way insulin controls blood glucose and lowers testosterone production. As a result, ovulation can return.
On a side note, the goal to reverse PCOS is to use nutrients to:
- Decrease sugar cravings
- Improve insulin sensitivity
- Improve carbohydrate metabolism
- Balance blood sugar levels
- And balance hormones
Meditation, mindfulness, gratefulness, journaling, and any other mind-body techniques can be used to lower cortisol levels.
Metformin Worsens Alzheimer’s Disease
While laboratory studies indicate that making the brain more sensitive to insulin should help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, clinical studies show the cognitive problems actually get worse. It turns out that the ability to use fat actually helps the brain to function better and to repair. However, the toxic effects of metformin on the body’s ability to use sugar lessen this benefit. The brain needs a constant supply of energy from sugar even when the body is burning fat.