A medication designed to help control insulin is now hard to find after a slew of people on social media talked about how they used it for weight loss. Ozempic, which is a brand name for semaglutide, is on the Food and Drug Administration’s list of current drug shortages.
Ozempic is designed as a treatment for diabetes when other medications have not been able to effectively control a patient’s blood sugar. But it can be prescribed off-label and is being used for weight loss in some patients, says Jamie Alan, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University. “There are concierge online services that give out Ozempic for weight loss,” she says.
Worth noting: Fellow semaglutide medication Wegovy is also in shortage. But what’s the deal with Ozempic, and is it safe to be used in this way? Here’s what you need to know.
What is Ozempic and how does it work?
Ozempic is used along with a diet and exercise program to control blood sugar levels in adults with type 2 diabetes, when other medications don’t control their blood sugar well, Medline Plus explains. Ozempic is given as an injection and can reduce the risk of a stroke, heart attack, or death in adults who have type 2 diabetes, along with heart and blood vessel disease.
Ozempic “mimics a protein present in your own body called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1),” Alan explains. Taking Ozempic “will activate GLP-1 receptors,” Alan says, noting that “activation of these receptors causes an increase in insulin, which helps to treat diabetes.”
Research has shown that Ozempic helped lower A1C levels (a measurement of blood glucose) to under 7%—an amount recommended by the American Diabetes Association.
Why might people lose weight on Ozempic?
It goes back to GLP-1. This “primarily works by stimulating the POMC (pro-opiomelanocortin) pathway of the brain in the hypothalamus which tells us to eat less and store less,” explains Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, an obesity medicine physician and associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It also slows down the movement of food through your stomach “so you feel full for longer,” Dr. Sanford says.
However, there’s likely more to Ozempic than that—it’s just not known at this point. “There are other potential mechanisms that we are beginning to understand,” Alan says.
The Ozempic website notes that people on the drug have lost up to 14 pounds, but makes it clear that it’s “not a weight loss drug.” Still, the company also points out that research looking at A1C levels found that people on Ozempic lost an average of eight pounds on 0.5 milligrams of the medication and 10 pounds on one milligram of the medication vs. three pounds on a placebo. In another study, people lost 12 pounds on one milligram of Ozempic and 14 pounds on two milligrams, the company says.
Is it safe to use Ozempic for weight loss?
Again, Ozempic is authorized for use by the FDA to help control blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes—not as a weight-loss drug. But Alan acknowledges that “prescription drugs are used off-label all the time.” If you’re under the care of a doctor, Alan says that it’s not considered dangerous to take a medication like Ozempic off-label. Dr. Stanford agrees. “Semaglutide is also approved for treating obesity under the tradename of Wegovy,” she says. “As such, there is no harm in this medication being off-label as it is approved for use for this indication.”
But, Alan notes, “you are still subject to the same side effects,” whether you take Ozempic for diabetes or weight loss. Those side-effects can include:
Low blood sugar
Changes in vision
It’s important to consider that people with diabetes may need this drug and can have difficulty obtaining it given the shortage. By using the medication off-label, you could be contributing to the problem.
The FDA also warns that Ozempic comes with a risk of possible thyroid tumors, including cancer.
A publicist for Novo Nordisk, which makes Ozempic, did not respond to Prevention’s request for comment by deadline.
What to do if you’re considering medication for weight loss
Doctors stress the importance of talking to a medical professional and staying under their care while taking anti-obesity medications. “Anti-obesity medications can be utilized in patients with obesity who have struggled with weight regulation with diet and exercise alone,” Dr. Stanford says. “Obesity is a chronic, relapsing, remitting disease that requires lifelong therapy, If the patient finds that medication helps regulate their weight, it should be continued indefinitely.” (However, she points out, anti-obesity medications should not be used during pregnancy.)
It’s also important to use medication within a greater context of lifestyle changes, Alan says. “Medications are wonderful, but they work best with proper diet and exercise,” she says. “Please work with a reputable physician when taking these medications.”
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