Biohacking can be described as citizen or do-it-yourself biology. For many “biohackers,” this consists of making small, incremental diet or lifestyle changes to make small improvements in your health and well-being. Biohacks promise anything from quick weight loss to enhanced brain function. But the best biohacking results come from being well-informed and cautious about what works for your body.[i]
If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve seen some of my earlier blogs on metformin, such as
- Metformin: The Future of Aging Well?
- Diabetes Drug, Metformin, Gives New Prostate Cancer Possibilities
- Warning: Metformin May Be Contaminated with NDMA
This blog is as much about biohacking as it is about the common diabetes drug metformin. If you are already a biohacker, skip this explanation. If not, you don’t need a degree in medicine or science to become one. In fact, you may already be an “armchair biohacker” without even realizing it. For example, if you alter your diet and exercise based on information on maximizing your wellness by listening to TED Talks, watching youtube educational videos, or reading health magazines on the benefits of supplements and eating organic foods, you are using a type of biohacking called nutrigenomics. You are likely aware that what you consume influences cellular behavior by switching gene signaling on or off.
Metformin: a biohack dream come true…?
Metformin is the most common first-line drug to control diabetes. Hostalek, et al. (2017) report that metformin “… enhances the action of insulin in liver and skeletal muscle, and its efficacy for delaying or preventing the onset of diabetes has been proven in large, well-designed, randomised trials…”[i]
In addition, literally thousands of published research articles directly or indirectly include the possibility of repurposing metformin for other uses. The drug itself has a long medicinal history in the form of a plant called the French lilac (from which it is derived) that was a folk remedy for diabetes symptoms. The molecular structure of metformin lends itself to binding with numerous cell types and biochemical signaling functions, with implications for influencing
- The body’s sensitivity to insulin
- The generation and balance of cellular energy
- Greater lifespan by more efficient disposal of “junk” cell components that impair cellular activity
- Appetite for carbs and sugars by making them less appealing (this calorie/sugar restriction may account for benefits related to weight loss in general, not necessarily a direct metformin effect)[iii]
- Anti-tumor activity either directly or indirectly, in what amounts to a chemopreventive effect against cancer and/or its recurrence[iv] (cancer prevention would also contribute to longevity)
- Cardiovascular wellness by suppressing a specific inflammatory signaling pathway[v]
All of these benefits, and possibly more to be discovered, are attributed to a pharmaceutical that is relatively cheap and plentiful. This makes it seem like the closest thing to a Wonder Drug for non-diabetic biohackers. In the U.S., a prescription from a doctor is needed; an ethical doctor is unlikely to prescribe it for someone with no history diabetes or its precursors. But let’s face it, a determined person can obtain a supply after a “consultation” with overseas online “pharmacies.”
…or a biohack nightmare?
So, what’s to keep someone from using it? Well, there are downsides. Metformin can have numerous side effects, though some are less likely than others:
- physical weakness (asthenia)
- gastrointestinal effects (diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, abdominal bloating)
- gas (flatulence)
- symptoms of weakness, muscle pain (myalgia)
- upper respiratory tract infection
- low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- abdominal pain (GI complaints), lactic acidosis (rare, but can be life-threatening)
- low blood levels of vitamin B-12 (about 30% of users develop this over long use, leading to weakness, shortness of breath, and even nerve damage)
- chest discomfort
- chills, dizziness
Side effects may be worse initially, but diabetics who are concerned are encouraged to consider non-pharmaceutical lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise to manage blood sugar naturally.
One aspect of metformin that appeals to many biohackers is its potential to protect against the diseases linked with aging. It is thus seen as an anti-aging drug, but is it? The TAME (Targeting Aging Through Metformin) Trial hopes to generate solid evidence. Launched in November 2019, TAME includes a series of nationwide, 6-year clinical trials at 14 leading U.S. research institutions. It aims to enroll 3,000+ people between the ages of 65-79. Notably, this trial is proceeding with the approval of the FDA.
Until TAME accomplishes its goal, the jury is still out, but I will continue to report on relevant metformin research, with special regard to prostate cancer prevention and men’s health. Stay tuned.
NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.
[ii] Hostalek U, Gwilt M, Hildemann S. Therapeutic Use of Metformin in Prediabetes and Diabetes Prevention. 2015; 75(10): 1071–1094.
[iii] Roseland, Jonathan. “Should Biohackers Use Metformin?” April 14, 2019. https://medium.com/@jonathanroseland/should-biohackers-use-metformin-ea2e525b073d
[iv] Heckman-Stoddard BM, DeCensi A, Sahasrabuddhe VV, Ford LG. Repurposing metformin for the prevention of cancer and cancer recurrence. Diabetologia. 2017 Sep; 60(9): 1639–1647.