The herb known as goat’s rue (Galega officinalis) has traditionally been used by mothers to increase their breast milk while nursing an infant. But there’s also a drug derived from this herb that researchers believe may be able to help you live longer and fight aging.
Scientists investigating this pharmaceutical have uncovered evidence that it can moderate blood sugar, lower the risk of heart disease,1 influence cellular metabolic processes and lead mitochondria (the organelles in cells that produce energy) to do things that make cells healthier.
The drug is metformin, an off-patent diabetes drug that’s been used for about 60 years and usually has only mild side effects.
But should folks concerned about aging start taking this drug? Here’s what we found.
Long Ago And Far Away
Back in the Middle Ages, while women used goat’s rue to support breastfeeding, other folks took it to stop excessive urination. Experts now believe that the herb’s effect on frequent urination was linked to diabetes. Because goat’s rue contains compounds that help control blood sugar, it was its role in moderating blood sugar that often made it helpful at limiting bathroom trips (or more likely outhouse trips, in those days).
Goat’s rue sometimes goes by other names — French lilac, faux indigo, professor weed and galega. In modern studies it has promoted weight loss and a decrease in body fat, although researchers haven’t been able to explain why these benefits occur.2
The new anti-aging commotion about the drug metformin can be traced back to a 2014 study in England that compared the longevity of people with diabetes who took metformin to people who did not have diabetes and didn’t take the drug.
The research, which involved about 180,000 Brits and covered more than ten years, came to an amazing conclusion: The people with diabetes who took this drug lived 15% longer than the folks without diabetes who were not on medication.3
Since that study the drug has become all the rage among anti-aging enthusiasts – mostly wealthy people and celebrities – who have access to a cooperative doctor.
One of the more popular theories about how metformin extends life and helps maintain physical fitness while aging involves its influence on mitochondria.
According to this analysis, metformin has a similar influence on cells as calorie restriction – another method known to add years to life. Examination of its cellular effects shows that metformin causes the activation of a substance called AMP (adenosine monophosphate) which, in turn signals the activation of an enzyme called AMPK.
The end result is a stress response from mitochondria that, rather than being harmful, can increase lifespan, according to some Asian researchers.4And this parallels what happens when people cut their calorie intake to boost life expectancy.
Meanwhile, investigators at the University of North Carolina have found that metformin’s effects might come about through changes in gut bacteria.5 The drug seems to encourage the growth of probiotic bacteria that help keep blood sugar down. On top of that, metformin also restricts sugar release from the liver.
In addition, metformin apparently helps gut bacteria produce beneficial types of short-chain fatty acids.6 These fatty acids are also thought to be involved in blood sugar moderation and may keep inflammation in the body from getting out of control.7
Natural Metformin Replacements
While all of this research is ongoing into the benefits of metformin, other scientists are trying to come up with natural substances that will produce the same anti-aging benefits.
After a complicated analysis of more than 800 natural compounds, these researchers, who hail from England, Canada, the US and Russia, decided that the most likely candidates are allantoin (often made from comfrey) and ginsenoside, derived from Panax ginseng.
Of course, these will have to be tested to see if they truly can offer the same effects as metformin.8
As I write this, an organization called the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR) is trying to gather funds for clinical trials to see how well metformin can beat back the negative effects of aging. The name of the trial is TAME – Targeting Aging with Metformin.
They’re looking to sign up about 3,000 people from the age of 65 to 79 for five years of metformin use to see how the drug influences the risk of cancer, dementia and heart disease as well as analyzing its effects on longevity.
This research will also look into the side effects of the drug. The most common ones are stomach problems and diarrhea. The medication can also lead to hypoglycemia – low blood sugar. In some cases it can cause what’s called lactic acidosis – a buildup of lactic acid in your bloodstream which can be dangerous.
Right now, AFAR still doesn’t have enough resources for the clinical trial. Part of the difficulty – metformin is available as a generic drug so no pharmaceutical corporation with deep pockets can exploit the substance. They’d rather invest in research on their proprietary high-profit drugs.