What is Metformin?

The most popular drug for treating type 2 diabetes, metformin is safe and effective and is derived from a three-foot-tall flowering plant

A drug prescription can come with a lot of questions. With our “Know Your Drugs” series, we provide you with a snapshot of the different diabetes drugs on the market and links to additional information.

Metformin is currently the most popular drug prescribed for those with Type 2 diabetes. It is considered a generally safe and effective drug for lowering blood sugar levels, and it’s one of the first diabetes medications prescribed after diagnosis.

According to a report in Diabetes Forecast, it was a three-foot-tall flowering plant named galega officinalis, or “goat’s rue”, that paved the way for metformin’s discovery in the early 20th century. There is a compound found within the plant that lowers blood sugar. By itself, the compound, called guanidine, can be toxic, but when two guanidine compounds are combined, they became a useful tool for blood sugar control.

Through the vagaries of fate and of the drug development process, metformin languished after its discovery and wasn’t clinically refined until the late 1950s in France. It also didn’t gain FDA approval until 1994.

Metformin is able to help control blood sugar levels by signaling that the liver should produce less glucose; it also makes cells more receptive to insulin absorption. Strange as it may sound, researchers, are still trying to determine how exactly the drug does this. For example, whereas before it was believed that metformin worked in the circulatory system, researchers recently discovered it most likely works in the stomach.

As researchers explore more about how metformin works, they are discovering some beneficial side effects to the drug. Studies have shown that metformin may cut the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia. The medication also may be helpful for those battling pancreatic cancer.

With every medication, there is always a risk of potential side effects. Metformin sometimes can cause an upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting. It is important to be aware of these side effects because they are also symptoms of lactic acidosis, which can be fatal when caused by drug interaction, according to a report by Drugwatch. Lactic acidosis symptoms include nausea, severely low blood sugar, stomach pain, and irregular heartbeat. If experiencing any of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.


Ashley Lambert is a recent Suffolk University graduate. While at Suffolk she studied communication and media studies.

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