Ozempic: everything you need to know about the weight-loss drug

Ozempic has become one of the most known weight-loss drugs, and recent studies suggest that it could do much more

Alonso Martínez
Ozempic at a pharmacy in Los Angeles (California).Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Semaglutide, better known for its brand name Ozempic, was developed in 2012 by a team of researchers at the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. It was developed for a once-weekly diabetes therapy and its clinical trials started in 2016, ending in 2017, after which it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One year later, it was approved in the European Union by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Not long after, doctors and patients noticed that those who consumed the medication lost up to 15% of their body weight. This resulted in Ozempic’s increasing popularity, being talked about not just by diabetic patients, but Hollywood stars that turned to the medication looking to lose weight. In June 2022, both the FDA and the EMA authorized the medication for facilitating weight loss.

The idea of a “miracle” drug that can cause weight loss is attractive, however, Ozempic is not miraculous. For the medication to work, patients need to change their lifestyle, particularly their eating habits. Its consumption also requires patients to be informed about its effects, possible side-effects and lifestyle changes that are required to keep the patient healthy. Recently, there have been several reports of people illegally obtaining Ozempic and having complications caused by misinformation or lack of information.

Here’s a breakdown of the medication with some of the most frequent questions.

What’s Ozempic for?

In Ozempic’s official website it states that Ozempic, along with diet and exercise, is used to improve blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes, and reduce the risk of major cardiovascular events such as heart attack, stroke, or death in adults with type 2 diabetes with known heart disease.

It has become more popular as a medication for weight loss, which is one of its effects. However, the user may need a change in diet and lifestyle for it to work and avoid health issues.

Some recent reports suggest that Ozempic and other weight loss medications may help users stop drinking alcohol or smoking. Other studies suggest that it could be used for conditions like dementia and heart disease.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Ozempic helped seven out of 10 patients newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes stop taking insulin after three to six months.

How does Ozempic work?

According to nutritionist Azahara Nieto, Ozempic’s active ingredient is semaglutide, which regulates blood sugar levels, increases the amount of insulin released in response to food intake and slows down digestion in the stomach, helping reduce body fat. That’s why it’s a common medication indicated for Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes.

The medication is available in rechargeable pens and is injected into the abdomen, legs or arms.

Do I need a prescription for Ozempic?

Yes. Ozempic require a medical prescription. High demand from people who want to lose weight quickly has resulted in a black market for the medication. This, along with alleged supply and distribution issues, has caused some shortage for diabetics who need the medication.

What are the side effects of Ozempic?

The effects of the medication lead to an increased sensation of fullness and slower gastric emptying. This could produce symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, dehydration, dizziness, vomiting, decreased appetite, and continued fullness even after eating small portions of food. Other symptoms are gastroenteritis and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Ozempic can also cause inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), changes in vision, kidney failure, serious allergic reactions and gallbladder problems. If those are experienced, the user should go immediately to a health care provider.

In patients with type 2 diabetes, it can cause hypoglycemia (low blood glucose).

In July 2023, the Icelandic Medicines Agency reported cases of suicidal thoughts and self-injury of users of the medication. Recently, the family of a man who died by suicide blamed the medication’s use and wanted Ozempic to include a warning label on the product.

Beyond the side-effects, there are other risks known linked to Ozempic. According to the official website, Ozempic may cause thyroid tumors, including cancer. It also recommends that people with MTC or Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia syndrome type 2 (MEN 2) -or family members with those conditions- avoid using it.

Recently, anesthesiologists in the U.S. and Canada have reported risk of complications in patients Ozempic under anesthesia. They inhaled food and liquid into their lungs while sedated because of the effects of the medication. Their stomachs were full after following standard instructions to stop eating for six to eight hours in advance. In June 2023, the American Society of Anesthesiologists issued guidance advising patients to skip daily weight-loss medications on the day of surgery and hold off on weekly injections for a week before any sedation procedures.

There have been reports of patients who used the drug being diagnosed with severe gastroparesis, or stomach paralysis.

When not to use Ozempic

The official Ozempic website states: “Do not use Ozempic if any of your family ever had MTC or if you have MEN 2″, and “if you are allergic to semaglutide or any of the ingredients in Ozempic.

It is advised that pregnant or breastfeeding women avoid taking Ozempic. If someone plans to get pregnant, they should avoid using Ozempic 2 months prior.

Only those with a prescription for Ozempic should take it.

What do experts think about Ozempic?

Experts in nutrition recommend that people avoid using Ozempic unless they have type 2 diabetes. “This medication could well be another tool to improve health, but I don’t endorse its use solely for weight loss”, says Nieto. “For someone who doesn’t have a healthy diet, it’s just a passive way to lose weight that brings a lot of physical discomfort. In such scenarios, providing nutrition education coupled with psychological support can be very effective”.

“If we use these drugs without changing our lifestyle, we accomplish absolutely nothing,” Juan Jose Gorgojo, the director of nutrition services at the Fundación Alcorcón University Hospital, said to EL PAÍS. “The cult of the body makes people lose perspective. I think it is an abomination to use these life-saving drugs so frivolously,” Some experts recommend talking to a health provider about Wegovy, another weight-loss drug.

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