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Many turn to the diabetes drug Ozempic to lose weight. Is it safe?

Dec 30, 2022

Ozempic, a prescription diabetes drug, is gaining popularity due to one of its side effects: weight loss. It's become a social media craze, and many people who don't have diabetes are using it off-label — taking an approved prescription for an unapproved purpose — and claiming it for their weight-loss success.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially approved the injectable drug for treating diabetes in 2017. In 2021, the FDA approved Wegovy, a drug with a greater dose of the active ingredient in Ozempic, called semaglutide, to treat obesity. Since then, there has been much discussion about the medication on the internet.

How does Ozempic work?

Ozempic and Wegovy are both designed to be injected into the stomach, thigh, or arm once a week.

Semaglutide regulates insulin and lowers blood sugar levels, which is critical for people with Type 2 diabetes. The medicine also mimics glucagon-like peptide-1, a hormone produced naturally in our intestines that limit hunger by signaling to our bodies that we are full and promoting our stomachs to empty more slowly. As a result, many who have obesity and other health issues have lost weight while taking it. For people with diabetes, the drug may also lower their risk of cardiovascular disease.

Who is supposed to take Ozempic and Wegovy?

Following the approval of Ozempic for patients with Type 2 diabetes, the FDA approved Wegovy for adults with obesity or excess weight who have at least one "weight-related condition," which the FDA defines as conditions such as high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol. The FDA defines obesity and overweight using the Body Mass Index, a well-established but frequently debated statistic.

Ozempic has not been authorized by the FDA for weight loss. The medicine has not been extensively tested in patients who do not have diabetes or obesity. However, after the FDA approved Wegovy for weight loss, the medicine became so popular that some physicians went to Ozempic when they couldn't get Wegovy.

What are the side effects?

People who take Ozempic or Wegovy for both FDA-approved and off-label purposes may experience nausea and dehydration. They may also experience fatigue and malaise. Their bowel movements may change, with some individuals experiencing diarrhea and others experiencing severe constipation.

In rare cases, the medicine may raise the risk of pancreatitis, a painful condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Gallstones may occur in some patients.

Is off-label use of these medications dangerous?

Doctors believe there isn't enough research to tell whether these drugs are beneficial or harmful to those who don't meet the FDA's criteria. As appealing as the promise of a weight loss drug may be, experts warn against seeking the medication for off-label use. Individuals who use Ozempic and Wegovy should be monitored closely.

The medicine has not been rigorously evaluated in people with lower body weights, and patients outside the group the drug is intended for may face more severe adverse effects. It's uncertain how harmful those side effects could be without more investigation.

Reference

  1. What is Ozempic, and why is it getting so much attention? [Cited: 30 December 2022]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/22/well/ozempic-diabetes-weight-loss.html

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