Diabetes drug may help recover from short periods of severe food insecurity or anorexia

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New research results suggest that the widely used diabetes drug metformin may be beneficial for recovering from short periods of severe food insecurity or anorexia. Researchers will present their work this week at the American Physiology Summit, the flagship annual meeting of the American Physiological Society (APS), in Long Beach, California.

Unlike modest food restriction, which is beneficial to overall metabolic health, even short periods of severe food restriction can have long-lasting health effects. It is estimated that 1 to 4% of women will experience severe food intake reduction from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa during their lifetime, and just under 4% of households in the U.S. are estimated to experience periods of severe food restriction due to food insecurity each year.

Although it is well known that starvation or severely reduced diets can damage organs such as the heart and kidney, scientists don't understand the underlying molecular causes for the damage, whether it persists and whether it can be reversed. The hope is that we may be able to intervene, potentially even in a later time frame, and short-circuit the development of chronic disease and organ injury."

Carolyn Ecelbarger, PhD, research team leader, associate professor of medicine from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Using a rat model to study the health effects of short periods of severe caloric restriction, the researchers found that a severe reduction in food intake lasting just two weeks caused damage to the heart and kidneys that appeared to be irreversible even after body weight is restored. During a two-month refeeding period during which rats could eat as much as they wanted, some rats also developed signs of prediabetes, such as increased abdominal obesity.

To test whether any of the negative effects from reduced food consumption could be reversed, some rats received metformin for five weeks during a refeeding period. These rats showed reduced abdominal obesity and improvements in some measures of heart health, including cardiac output, which indicates how much blood is pumped out of the heart with each beat.

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