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Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors

Drugs & Medication

Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors

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Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors are oral anti-diabetic drugs used for diabetes mellitus type 2 that work by preventing the digestion of complex carbohydrates (such as starch). Complex carbohydrates are normally converted into simple sugars (monosaccharides) which can be absorbed through the intestine. Hence, alpha-glucosidase inhibitors reduce the impact of complex carbohydrates on blood sugar.


Examples and differences

Examples of alpha-glucosidase inhibitors include:

  • Acarbose

Even though the drugs have a similar mechanism of action, there are subtle differences between acarbose and miglitol. Acarbose is an oligosaccharide, whereas miglitol resembles a monosaccharide. Miglitol is fairly well-absorbed by the body, as opposed to acarbose. Moreover, acarbose inhibits pancreatic alpha-amylase in addition to alpha-glucosidase.

Role in clinical use

Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors are used to establish greater glycemic control over hyperglycemia in diabetes mellitus type 2, particularly with regard to postprandial hyperglycemia. They may be used as monotherapy in conjunction with an appropriate diabetic diet and exercise, or they may be used in conjunction with other anti-diabetic drugs.

Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors may also be useful in patients with diabetes mellitus type 1; however, this use has not been officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Mechanism of action

Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors are saccharides that act as competitive inhibitors of enzymes needed to digest carbohydrates: specifically alpha-glucosidase enzymes in the brush border of the small intestines. The membrane-bound intestinal alpha-glucosidases hydrolyze oligosaccharides, trisaccharides, and disaccharides to glucose and other monosaccharides in the small intestine.

Acarbose also blocks pancreatic alpha-amylase in addition to inhibiting membrane-bound alpha-glucosidases. Pancreatic alpha-amylase hydrolyzes complex starches to oligosaccharides in the lumen of the small intestine.

Inhibition of these enzyme systems reduces the rate of digestion of complex carbohydrates. Less glucose is absorbed because the carbohydrates are not broken down into glucose molecules. In diabetic patients, the short-term effect of these drugs therapies is to decrease current blood glucose levels: the long term effect is a small reduction in hemoglobin A1c level. (From Drug Therapy in Nursing, 2nd ed)


Since alpha-glucosidase inhibitors are competitive inhibitors of the digestive enzymes, they must be taken at the start of main meals to have maximal effect. Their effects on blood sugar levels following meals will depend on the amount of complex carbohydrates in the meal.

Side effects & precautions

Since alpha-glucosidase inhibitors prevent the degradation of complex carbohydrates into glucose, the carbohydrates will remain in the intestine. In the colon, bacteria will digest the complex carbohydrates, thereby causing gastrointestinal side effects such as flatulence and diarrhea. Since these effects are dose-related, it is generally advised to start with a low dose and gradually increase the dose to the desired amount.

If a patient using an alpha-glucosidase inhibitor suffers from a bout of hypoglycemia, the patient should eat something containing monosaccharides, such as glucose tablets. Since the drug will prevent the digestion of complex carbohydrates, starchy foods may not effectively reverse a hypoglycemic episode in a patient taking an alpha-glucosidase inhibitor.

Home | Up | Diabetes mellitus | Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors | Dipeptidyl peptidase-4 inhibitors | Insulin therapies | Meglitinides | Sulfonylureas | Thiazolidinediones

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