The Health Risks of Taking Metformin

Metformin is a diabetic medication with a variety of benefits. It also has some potential risks. What are the potential side effects of metformin?

If you’re diabetic, your doctor may have prescribed a medication for you called metformin to help bring your blood sugars down and prevent the many complications associated with diabetes. Metformin works by increasing insulin sensitivity without raising levels of insulin as some other diabetic medications do which reduces the risk of hypoglycemia. Metformin is also quite effective at lowering blood sugar level and hemoglobin A1C levels; but there are some potential side effects that people who take this drug should be aware of. What are the risks of metformin use?

The Risks of Metformin

One recent concern about taking metformin is its association with peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is a condition where nerves become damaged – leading to pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness along the path of the nerve. Although this condition is more common in people with diabetes, diabetics who take metformin appear to be at an even higher risk. New studies are suggesting that metformin contributes to peripheral neuropathy and nerve damage by lowering levels of vitamin B12.

Side Effect of Metformin: Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Vitamin B12 is a vitamin that helps to maintain healthy red blood cells and preserve the health of the nervous system. Deficiency of B12 can lead to peripheral neuropathy, decreased memory, depression, confusion and problems with balance. It can also cause anemia. Previous studies have shown that up to a third of people who take metformin have some evidence of B12 deficiency. How does metformin lower B12 levels? It’s thought that it reduces absorption of B12 by the intestines.

Because of this common side effect of metformin, it’s important to have B12 levels checked periodically while on it – especially if symptoms of peripheral neuropathy such as numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness develop. Peripheral neuropathies are common in diabetics and it could be assumed that diabetes is the cause unless B12 levels are monitored. If levels are low, B12 supplements can be given. In fact, if you take metformin, talk to their doctor about adding a multivitamin with B12 to reduce the risk of B12 deficiency. Since B12 is found primarily in animal products, vegetarians, in particular, should get supplemental B12.

The Good Side Effects of Metformin

The good news is people who take metformin may experience some additional benefits including reductions in cholesterol and heart disease risk. Another good side effect of metformin for some people is weight loss. Some people on metformin have been able to lose up to ten percent of their body weight which can be a positive for diabetics who are also obese. The bad news are the gastrointestinal side effects experienced by people who take metformin which include nausea, diarrhea, bloating, and decreased appetite. This may account for some of the weight loss.

The Bottom Line

For people who need a medication to control blood sugar, metformin has some benefits, but also a few risks. Be aware of the possibility of B12 deficiency while on this medication particularly if you experience nerve-related symptoms. Have your doctor follow your levels of B12 and consider taking a vitamin supplement with B12.

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  1. Very informative article, especially since I know a few diabetics.

  2. Metformin is also often taken with sulfonylure and Exenatide, a drug originally derived from the venom of the Gila Monster. As a result, side effects should be understood in the context of all the drugs being taken simultaneously and this often requires knowledge from a pharmacist.

  3. Very good article on Metformin

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