One of the most widely used diabetic drugs, metformin, may help people recover from health issues caused by short periods of severe food insecurity or anorexia, a new study has found.

Researchers of the study, which was presented at the American Physiology Summit (APS) in Long Beach, California, last weekend, found that food restriction can lead to long-lasting health effects, although a modest level of restriction might promote metabolic health.

The food restriction can be due to food insecurity or anorexia. In the U.S., around 4% of the population suffers from food insecurity, and 1 to 4% of women suffer from anorexia during their lifetime.

Apart from obvious signs of weight loss, anorexia is among the most dangerous types of eating disorders that can cause several short-term and long-term health issues, such as thinning of bones, heart disease, blood pressure complications and neurological issues.

"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, research team leader and associate professor of medicine from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said.

The researchers used a rat model to evaluate the health impact of a short period of severe caloric restriction. They then found that the food restriction that lasted just two weeks caused irreversible damage to the heart and kidneys.

After the calorie-restricted period, the rats were fed as much as they wanted for two months. During the refeeding period, some rats developed signs of prediabetes, such as increased abdominal obesity.

To test if the prediabetes condition could be reversed, during the refeeding period, some rats were administered metformin for five weeks.

The findings of the study showed that the rats that were given metformin had reduced abdominal obesity. They also had better cardiac output, a heart health measure indicating the amount of blood pumped out of the heart with each beat.

"This strategy could have the potential to positively affect enormous numbers of individuals. However, more work is needed to find the best timing and most effective doses for treatment. We are also exploring other drugs, such as [Food and Drug Administration]-approved blood pressure medications," Ecelbarger said.

Yet more voluntary recalls of metformin. The contaminant and carcinogen NDMA has been found in levels above what is considered safe. Shutterstock