Jessy Scarpone

French Lilac and Diabetes: What’s The Story on Metformin?

There are 29.1 million people in the United States alone that have diabetes. A bold 27.8 percent of that population walk around undiagnosed, the CDC reports. Clinical research, medical journals, and headlines from reputable new sources echo that this disease is only on the rise. But today a 3,000-year-old drug with the active ingredient biguanide— otherwise known as French Lilac or “goat’s rue”— is showing promise as a potential remedy for diabetic symptoms.

While trials are also underway to determine French Lilac’s potent anti-aging implications, the flower has been used in folk medicine since the Middle Ages, when it was used to treat symptoms that we now know are linked to diabetes— increased thirst and hunger, frequent urination, weight loss or gain, fatigue, blurred vision, prolonged healing, nausea, skin infections…the list goes on. Still, lilac’s journey from “bench to bedside,” as Dr. Alan Marcus (an endocrinologist who specializes in diabetes, infertility, thyroid and metabolic disorders) calls it, is still far from complete.

“When health care providers treat patients, it shouldn’t be one size fits all. It should be individualized. There’s no off-the-rack treatment for how a disease should or shouldn’t be treated.”

Controlled studies with French Lilac began in 1929 when Slotta and Tschesche discovered that it was lowering glucose levels in rabbits. In 1950, additional studies revealed that French Lilac could help reduce blood pressure and heart rate in the same species. That same year, Eusebio Y. Garcia, a physician from the Philippines, used French Lilac (which he patented under the name Fluamine) to treat influenza. Garcia believed that French Lilac was bacteriostatic, antiviral, antimalarial, antipyretic and analgesic, but Janusz Supniewski, a Polish pharmacologist, went on to publish a series of articles disproving some of this information– in the course of which he did acknowledge that Garcia was correct in his antiviral findings.

Fast forward to 1957, when a French diabetes specialist named Jean Sterne was the first to prescribe Metformin to diabetic patients. He called the drug “Glucophage”, a glucose eater. Metformin was approved for use in Canada circa 1972, but did not receive FDA approval in the U.S. until 1995.

Last year I read an endorsement for Metformin from Steve Aoki, an electronic musician who is an outspoken health advocate, which initially promoted my interest in the subject. I’ve since read about prescription drugs contaminating Lake Michigan— Metformin being the highest level detected at 840 parts per trillion; I’ve read that studies are underway for Metformin being used to prevent cancer. I’ve also read about Metformin’s side effects when taken as a lifelong prescription, and Metformin is also off-limits for those that regularly consume alcohol or have congestive heart failure.

French Lilac

Jessy Scarpone

With an awareness that there are pros and cons to every great discovery, I connected with Dr. Marcus for more information. Why do some deem this drug groundbreaking, while others disapprove of its use?

“Why does Aspirin cause bleeding in some people and not in others?” Dr. Marcus poses, after revealing that 80 percent of his pre-diabetic patients have added Metformin to their daily regimen. “The ideal Metformin patient yesterday was someone who had Type 2 diabetes,” he told me. “Today, it’s someone who has Type 2 diabetes, who is pre-diabetic, or is at risk of having diabetes.”

“We are each made up of 3 million base pairs that are the code for our DNA, and no two of us are alike,” Marcus continues. “Absorption and how the medicine binds to the cell receptors is unique for every individual. That’s why when health care providers treat patients, it shouldn’t be one-size-fits all. It should be individualized. There’s no off-the-rack treatment for how a disease should or shouldn’t be treated.”

“But today, Metformin is the only medicine that’s approved by the American Diabetes Associated for the prevention of diabetes,” he added, hinting at the drug’s potential to expand into the lexicon of popular medicine.

“Metformin lowers insulin by decreasing glucose production in the liver, improving glucose uptake by the periphery, and making your system more efficient at getting glucose. If you have insulin resistance, you don’t get glucose adequately, so you crave sugar, which leads to higher insulin levels.”

“Basically, the endocrine system, immune system, and the nervous system all cohesively work together because they communicate with each other. People who have endocrine disorders typically have immune disorders– they often have nervous system disorders,” he continues, explaining the larger bio-chemical picture. “For people with diabetes, the estimate is that up to 50 percent have depression and anxiety. People who have glucose delivery issues or autoimmune issues have chronic fatigue. Diabetes is a mosaic of illnesses,” he explains. “Metformin lowers insulin by reducing glucose production in the liver, improving glucose uptake by the periphery, and making your system more efficient in getting glucose. If you have insulin resistance, you don’t get glucose adequately so you crave sugar– which leads to higher insulin levels. By rectifying [glucose metabolism] with diet and Metformin, you change those mechanisms.”

So what has been the patient response? I ask.

“Patients will say, ‘I don’t want to take a drug that I’ll have to take for the rest of my life.’ But the only other option is to change who their parents are, since diabetes is a genetic disease,” Marcus concludes. “It’s been 60 years since Metformin first appeared, and it’s still not at the bedside and in the patient’s hand as frequently as it should be,” he notes as a parting observation. “We shouldn’t be failure-driven in our medical approach. We should be proactive and preventive.”

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For more information on Metformin, check out The United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study, which addresses Metformin’s positive inverse-correlation with heart attack and stroke. As always, consult with your doctor before taking any new supplements. 

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