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What is metformin?

Pharmacist in a lab coat with What is Metformin? written across the image
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What is metformin used for?

Metformin is a first-line medication for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. It helps to control blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

What does metformin do?

Metformin helps the body’s own insulin do its job better. That means you don’t get such a build-up of sugar levels in your blood after you eat. This helps to reduce the damage to your body that high blood sugar can cause in the long run.

For people with pre-diabetes that has a strong risk of it developing into type 2 diabetes, metformin can be used to slow or reverse the progress of the condition.

When you take metformin, your liver doesn’t release as much sugar into your blood. Your body is also more able to react to the insulin you have produced to help control high blood sugar.

Can I take metformin for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

Metformin can also be used to help women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) by a combination of controlling insulin and stimulating ovulation (egg release). It’s also sometimes used for this reason to help women with fertility problems, although this is only under specialist treatment in exceptional circumstances.

Metformin and body weight loss

Unlike some other treatments for type 2 diabetes, metformin is less likely to encourage weight gain. So for anyone who is overweight, it’s especially useful. It’s also extremely rare to have problems with your blood sugar going too low, known as a hypoglycaemic attack (or hypo) with metformin, compared to other type 2 diabetes treatments. If you’re taking a few treatments for type 2 diabetes together then you still need to be careful about your blood sugar going too low. For these reasons, metformin is normally the medicine of choice when starting treatment.

How do I take metformin?

It’s usual to take metformin as tablets with the doses split throughout the day, normally with food. There are some types of metformin tablets that release the dose very gradually (slow-release tablets which may have XL, MR or other abbreviations in the name) and it’s often recommended to take these as a single dose at night. Check what your dose instructions are and ask your GP if you’re not sure about anything. 

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Common side effects

The most common side effects when taking metformin tend to be related to your digestive system. You could experience nausea (feeling sick), indigestion, or mild diarrhoea. It’s best to take any doses at the same time as your meals in order to cut down on these side effects. For most people, the side effects disappear after a few days or in some cases, a couple of weeks. However, if that doesn’t happen for you and you’re concerned, contact a health professional for support. 

More serious side effects are rare and would normally be picked up by routine blood tests but always contact your GP if you notice your skin or the whites of your eyes turn yellow. If you become extremely tired or your breathing becomes fast and shallow or your heart rate gets slow, please contact your GP. 

For NHS-approved information on metformin, check out the NHS website.

Healthy living advice

The NHS has a wealth of information on making sure you have a balanced diet. Check out this link for quick and healthy recipes, meal planning and much more.