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Diabetes Medication

Diabetes Drug Dangers

A single research report that found risks in one of the medications that we take to control our diabetes would warrant our attention. But when three separate studies find serious side effects from all our major drugs, the time is right for us to reconsider how we control our blood glucose levels.

Most of us think of our diabetes drugs, diet, and exercise as the three basic ways we do that. But drugs come first. Maybe they should come last, at least for all of us with type 2 diabetes, who unlike type 1s have a choice.

Since March 10, studies have called into question the side effects of metformin, the glitazones, insulin, and the sulfonylureas.

First, came a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study suggested that when the elderly use metformin alone they might eventually get Alzheimer’s disease. This is bad news, because metformin is by far the most commonly prescribed medication and is otherwise extremely safe.

The study found that taking insulin along with metformin counteracted that effect. But few people take that combination. And they found the effect only in the elderly, but with luck we will all be elderly some day. And these results are certainly preliminary. There are based on a study of rat’s brains, and with luck our brains work differently.

Next, came a study in the April issue of the American Journal of Ophthalmology of the glitazones — Actos and Avandia. A study of about 170,000 people with diabetes found that taking one of the glitazones is “modestly associated” with macular edema. If untreated, it can lead to blindness.

But the researchers hadn’t yet finished finding problems with our diabetes medications. The April 15 issue of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that older people are more likely to have dementia after they had experienced one or more episodes of severe hypoglycemia. These findings came from a long-term study of more than 16,000 people.

The study found that compared with people taking insulin were more likely to have severe hypos than those on other drugs. But the sulfonylureas and the rarely prescribed Prandin can also cause hypos.

Except for Byetta, this just about covers the medications that most of us rely on to control our diabetes. While in 2007 the Food and Drug Administration found 30 reports of pancreatitis among people taking Byetta, that is a very small percentage of those people taking it. And in fact it is a smaller percentage than found among people with diabetes in general. Full disclosure: I own some stock in Amylin, the company that developed Byetta.

Because every drug has its side effects, it’s no wonder that more and more people ask me about natural treatments for diabetes.

“Because my A1C is 6.8, my doctor wants to put me on metformin,” a woman just wrote. “I’m scared.”

“I noticed that you do not have anything on natural products for the control of diabetes,” one young man wrote me last week. “Do you not believe in them?”

Earlier, a correspondent wrote that she doesn’t want any medications that “shake down” her pancreas. She wanted to use alternative herbs instead.

“But complementary and alternative medicine is a medication,” Dr. Laura Shane McWhorter replied when I passed on that comment. She is a professor at the University of Utah’s College of Pharmacy and the author of Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM) Supplement Use in People with Diabetes: A Clinician’s Guide.

“Many people believe that these products are not drugs,” she told me, “but they have pharmacological ingredients.” She added that, for example, we got both metformin and aspirin originally from herbs.

Those alternative herbs haven’t been tested nearly as much as prescription medicine. They generally aren’t standardized either.

But we do have one natural choice that’s well tested and has no side effects. It is a very low-carbohydrate diet. Regular readers will remember that I have written many articles here about the reasons for and advantages of this means of controlling our diabetes.

I don’t recommend that you or anyone with type 2 diabetes stop taking their prescribed diabetes medication when your A1C level is above 6.0 or 7.0. Especially now in light of these three new studies, the only medication that I can comfortably recommend to bring your A1C level within that range is Byetta.

But then carefully consider that you can totally relying on a low-carb diet — as well as exercise. After years of taking many different diabetes drugs, I know from my own experience that a very low-carb diet combined with regular exercise is both the safest and the most effective way to control my blood glucose level.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • yuval at

    hi im new 3 monthe diabetic and happy
    first my a1c was 12.7 now its 5.6 i was obese 3 years ago now im 170sm 82 kg so just over waight in the last three month i lost 6 kg
    so i balanced my a1c
    im taking 2 time a day janumet 500/50
    i want to control my diabetes without those medicen
    can i shuld i
    im making great with my low carbo diet and walikng my dog 1 hour each day

    • David Mendosa at

      Dear Yuval,

      I do think that you will be able to manage your diabetes without any medication by following a very low-carb diet. A few years ago I was in exactly the same place as you are now, and I have been able to keep my A1C level in the low 5’s.


  • minismom at

    metformin gives me some digestive side effects, it makes me gassy so much that i get stomach aches at night nor to mention the diahhrea, headache and also some what a brain fog kinda thing.

    medication means i can eat carbs!! i am happy when i am dieting and exercising, my Aic moved down from 8.5 to 6.9 in 50 days of diet and execrsice alone. only issue there is i have to eat a lot of non veg else i go hungry most of the day. i don’t like too much of non veg.

    please advice, what should i take for medication? ( i haven’t gone to a endo as yet).

  • dolores at

    Many people control their diabetes with a very low carb diet. (Atkins added grains when his very low carb diet produced poor results in his diabetic patients after two or three years. I have been diabetic for 18 years and try to include one serving of grains or potatoes with each meal. I make vats of soup and put in rice and/or steel cut oats. No meds so far. Of course we are not talking about a potato the size of Rhode Island. I think portion control is very important as is not overeating and getting plenty of exercise. It scares me to see the white flour pancakes, breakfast bars and pop tarts, ice cream, cookies and soda pop being fed to my dear grandchildren. Nary a vegetable in sight. I am told they don’t like them.



  • Annie Lovelace at

    My husband is diabetic. He has one kidney. The medications that he is on right now are Byetta, Meteformin and Actos. Should all of those be taken together? This seems like too much?

    • David Mendosa at


      Yes, it does get complicated when someone is taking three diabetes medications. Many doctors prefer to limit the prescriptions to one or two.

      Best regards,


  • Barbara ARMO at

    I am curious about Byetta. My physician will put me on it if I insist. I am fat, always have been, except when STRINGENTLY doing the Atkins Diet back in the 70’s. After awhile, I craved carbs so much that I went the whole hog for them (esp. Mex food!). Gained all the weight back and more….Now I’m Type 2 (four years), and finally desperate enough to want to change something to improve matters. I am trying to cut the carbs again, but I am just too food obsessed, which is how I got here to begin with. I KNEW being obese was really big risk factor, but still couldn’t lose weight by doing the traditional diet thing of cutting calories and exercising. I have heard marvelous things about Byetta, but would like to hear first hand about the daily routine and the side effects—besides death, of course!

    • David Mendosa at


      If you read my book, “Losing Weight with your Diabetes Medication.” I think it would give you the encouragement that you need to go on Byetta.