From Baptist Health South Florida
3 min. read
The prescription drug semaglutide, sold primarily under the brand name Ozempic, is prescribed to help people with diabetes control their blood sugar and help with long-term weight management.
In recent weeks, however, this drug has become the subject of controversy since it has gone viral on social media as a weight-loss solution – even for those who do not have diabetes.
The clamor for Ozempic, which is sold as a liquid solution administered as an under-the-skin injection, has caused shortages of the medication. This has created serious issues for those who actually need their prescribed medication to ensure their bodies can release insulin to control diabetes.
“We’re constantly getting calls from patients who can’t find it,” said Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., chief population health officer for Baptist Health and chief of cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “The pharmacies are out of it, and we’re jumping through hoops to have them be able to continue on the medication.”
No one should take this medication unless it is prescribed by a doctor who can supervise its treatment. Research has found that those who are prescribed the medication and stop using it can regain weight, especially if they didn’t make any lifestyle changes.
“I have seen multiple patients in my office that have no history of diabetes or pre-diabetes that are specifically asking for Ozempic for weight loss,” said Heberto Valdes, M.D., an endocrinologist with Baptist Health. “Ozempic is not a weight-loss medication. In return, this high demand is limiting the supplies needed for diabetic patients.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Ozempic in 2017 for use in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Ozempic signals the pancreas to create more insulin, which helps control blood sugar levels and also lowers glucagon, a hormone that raises sugar levels. This can result in weight loss, but Ozempic has not been approved for that purpose.
“Ozempic can help a patient lose weight; however, it is made to treat diabetes,” explains Dr. Valdes. “Medications, including Ozempic, have side effects and I encourage patients to speak to a medical professional and seek guidance and expertise on the potential side effects and benefits before taking this type of medication. What we want to avoid is the risk of losing weight and gaining an unnecessary harmful side effect.”
Serious side effects of Ozempic can include: diabetic retinopathy (damaged blood vessels in the eye); gallstones; kidney problems including kidney failure; swelling of the pancreas; increased risk of thyroid cancer; allergic reaction and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Milder side effects linked to Ozempic include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting. Hypoglycemia can cause blurred vision, difficulty concentrating, confused thinking, slurred speech, numbness, and drowsiness.
“If you lose weight rapidly and you don’t start monitoring then you could pass out and break your hip or crack your head,” said Dr. Fialkow. “These medications need to be monitored by your doctor.”
The most serious risks may not even be well known because the effects of semaglutide (Ozempic) have not been sufficiently studied in a wider population.
“Do these people take other medications or have other conditions that might be not safe with Ozempic which weren’t studied?” said Dr. Fialkow. “We don’t know enough about interactions with other medications, which have their own established side effects we know that people will experience.”
Semaglutide belongs to a class of medication known as glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) – and it is part of therapy already established for the management of type 2 diabetes. GLP-1 therapy is recommended early in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, also resulting in some weight reduction and favorable management of heart disease. In recent studies, GLP-1 therapies have proven effective in reducing obesity, which is a primary risk factor for diabetes, in individuals with other underlying health issues, including diabetes or prediabetes – a condition that may lead to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
In one recent study, another class of medication — glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide (GIP) – was combined with GLP-1 to comprise another drug that has yet to become widely available for weight loss. The new drug enables weight loss by increasing incretin, which is the hunger-controlling hormone.
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