Ozempic: Everything you need to know about the new weight loss drug semaglutide

By | June 11, 2023

Semaglutide is making waves online for its potential to help people lose weight. Sold under the brand names Ozempic and Wegovy, this drug can supposedly help you lose more than 10% of your body weight and counts Elon Musk among its users.

But what does this drug actually do, who is it suitable for and are there any side effects? With Hollywood’s favorite ‘skinny jab’ now arriving in the UK, we’ve answered all these questions and more with a guide to everything you need to know about semaglutide and the names it’s sold under.

What is Ozempic?

Ozempic and Wegovy are drug brands that are manufactured from the drug semaglutide. Both are given by injection and manufactured by Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk.

Ozempic has been used to treat type 2 diabetes for a few years, while Wegovy is the new weight-loss version of the drug arriving in the UK. The difference between the two is that Wegovy has a higher concentration of semaglutide.

How does Ozempic work?

Semaglutide replicates a hormone called GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1) secreted by the intestines after eating. It tells the pancreas to raise insulin, which is why semaglutide was designed to treat type 2 diabetes.

However, GLP-1 also sends signals to the brain that make us feel full. Semaglutide can therefore be used to suppress the appetite and alleviate some of the negative effects of the diet.

“When you lose weight through dieting, you start feeling hungry, unhappy, tired and everything in between,” said Dr Simon Cork, senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. BBC Science Fire. “What semaglutide does is prevent the biological response to weight loss.”

Does semaglutide help you lose weight?

The drug helps people lose weight but does not directly cause weight loss. “Semaglutide won’t make you lose weight, but what it will do is support the weight loss that is achieved through diet and exercise,” Cork said.

A large study of 1,961 overweight or obese adults found that patients using semaglutide lost an average of 15.3 kg, or 2.4 stone, while those in a placebo group lost an average of 2.6 kg. Both groups also received advice on diet and lifestyle.

However, weight loss gained with the assistance of semaglutide is not necessarily permanent. A follow-up study found that one year after stopping semaglutide injections, participants had regained two-thirds of the weight they lost. It’s also unclear how effective the drug would be without diet and exercise advice.

Semaglutide is usually injected by Getty
Getty

Dr Margaret McCartney, a general practitioner based in Glasgow, also questioned how much difference semaglutide could make to large populations, with the potential for many people to ‘gain weight rapidly’ after two years of free treatment on the NHS at less that they cannot afford to pay for semaglutide privately.

“Given the societal gradient associated with obesity, it may be that the people with the greatest benefits from the drug would not be able to afford it,” McCartney wrote in a column for the BMJ extension.

Where am I Ozempico and Wegovy available?

The weight loss version of semaglutide (Wegovy) is not yet available in the UK but is on the way. Street pharmacists have started promoting the drug and semaglutide will soon be available in England on the NHS for weight loss, but there are certain conditions.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended that the drug be available to those with a body mass index of at least 35 (over 30 are obese) and a weight-related health condition. Additionally, Wegovy will only be prescribed by the NHS for up to two years as part of a specialist weight management service. Most of these are based in hospitals and, according to government figures, would give access to the drug to around 35,000 people.

“Semaglutide is not going to be available to everyone,” Helen Knight, director of drug evaluation at NICE, said in March. “Our committee has made specific recommendations to ensure it remains good value for taxpayers and can only be used for up to two years.”

On June 6, the UK government announced a £40 million pilot scheme to explore how approved medicines like semaglutide could be made available to more people. This includes the potential to expand specialist weight management services outside hospitals and allow access to medicines through general practitioners.

Wegovy will be available on prescription from High Street chemists in the UK, with an anticipated launch in spring 2023. The cost is yet to be revealed.

cork said BBC Science Fire that the authorization of the drug for the treatment of obesity on the NHS is a positive step with the scientific community clear that severe obesity is a disease that needs to be managed through medicines. However, Cork is not sure if semaglutide makes its way to the high street.

“I have reservations about it being privately available on the high street because I think it’s a drug that needs to be monitored and managed very carefully,” she said.

What are the side effects of Semaglutide?

Semaglutide side effects can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. The United States National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus website also warns that an injection of semaglutide could increase the risk of tumors of the thyroid gland, noting that the risks of taking the drug should be discussed with a doctor.

The New York Times reported that an extreme risk of taking Ozempic is that some people experience such a loss of appetite that they can become malnourished. This highlights the importance of maintaining a good diet alongside the medication.

Note that this is only a snippet of the potential side effects of semaglutide. There are many others. Cork also said BBC Science Fire that “we have no data on the long-term safety of this drug.”

Will Ozempic become a mental health drug?

Reports have surfaced that Ozempic could become a breakthrough anti-anxiety drug with many mental health benefits, including reducing addictive behaviors and improving a person’s stress and depression.

GLP-1 is naturally released in the brain and can interact with reward pathways. By mimicking GLP-1, Ozempec may have a positive impact on cravings and mental health. Additionally, weight loss can increase self-confidence, and the stigma associated with weight can lead someone to lose weight to feel better.

Reuse of a drug to treat other health problems is not an uncommon phenomenon, with semaglutide already being used to address type 2 diabetes and obesity. However, more research is needed to explore other potential benefits such as mental health treatment.

About our expert, Dr Simon Cork

Dr. Simon Cork is Senior Lecturer in Physiology at Anglia Ruskin University and Honorary Lecturer at Imperial College London. He had a specialist interest in obesity, the gut-brain axis and appetite regulation. His research has been published in journals including the Journal of Neural Engineering, Molecular metabolism, AND Neuroscience.

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