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In 2023, diabetes medications like Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus, all brand names of the drug semaglutide, have been dominating headlines and social media trends with reports on their use for rapid weight loss, so much so that semaglutide is in extremely high demand, resulting in shortages.
Despite the attention these medications are getting and the resulting impact on their availability, there is still a bit of confusion about how these medications work, who is eligible to take them and what the risks, side effects and potential dangers are. Here is what you need to know.
How do diabetes medications work?
“Semaglutide is an injectable type 2 diabetes drug that can help with weight loss—on average, around 15 percent of patient’s body weight,” Nicole Zucconi, D.O., a primary care physician at Inspira Medical Group Primary Care Millville. “It works by mimicking a peptide hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), which the intestines naturally produce.” Like GLP-1, semaglutide targets the area of the brain that regulates food intake and limits appetite by signaling fullness to the body, prompting the stomach to empty more slowly.
Researchers have found semaglutide effective for weight loss in those who have diabetes or excess weight. In a 68-week study of Wegovy, 48 percent of adults taking the drug lost 15 percent or more of their weight, compared to just 5 percent of those taking a placebo. The drug also lowers blood sugar levels, regulates insulin and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease for people with diabetes.
Who are eligible candidates for diabetes medications?
Semaglutide is widely accepted as safe, but it is not for everyone.
“In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Ozempic for people with type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. Zucconi. “A few years later, Wegovy, which is a higher dose of the same medication, was approved by the FDA for adults with obesity or excess weight (defined by the Body Mass Index) with at least one weight-related condition, considered by the FDA to be issues like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or high cholesterol.”
Wegovy can also be used as an addition to diet and exercise for long-term weight management in adolescents 12 years and older with a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for their age and sex.
The medication has not been significantly studied in people without diabetes or excess weight, so unforeseen dangers, risks and side effects may be unknown.
What are the potential dangers, risks and side effects?
The most widely reported side effects of semaglutide include:
- Nausea and dehydration
- Fatigue and malaise
- Changes in bowel movements
In rare cases, increased risk of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), gallstones and vomiting have been seen. To avoid these complications, doctors prescribe lower doses, monitor patients and increase the dosage over time.
“Diabetes medications like semaglutide are safe and effective at helping with weight loss in people with type 2 diabetes and obesity,” said Dr. Zucconi. “But researchers discourage the use of this class of drugs for people without those conditions, in part because they do not know the side effects and because the increased interest in semaglutide has decreased availability for people who really need it.”
If you are looking to lose weight, talk to your doctor or reach out to Inspira’s weight management program.
Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA.