Ozempic is an antidiabetic medication developed by Novo Nordisk in 2012 and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved the medication in 2017. Used for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, Ozempic is designed to be injected once a week in the stomach, thigh, or arm. In February, Novo Nordisk warned of supply constraints this year on Ozempic. In March, after months of shortages, the FDA announced that Ozempic is back on the shelves in the United States. The demand for Ozempic was assumed to be partly driven by prescriptions for non-diabetic patients seeking to lose weight, which is outside the drug’s approved indication.
Ozempic impacts weight via two key mechanisms. First, it affects the hunger centers in the brain,specifically in the hypothalamus, reducing hunger, appetite and cravings. Second, it slows the rate of stomach emptying, which effectively prolongs fullness and satiety after meals. The net result is decreased hunger, prolonged fullness, and, ultimately, weight loss. In a clinical trial sponsored by Novo Nordisk, 1,961 adults with excess weight or obesity who did not have diabetes were given 2.4 milligrams of semaglutide, the active ingredient in Ozempic, or a placebo once a week for 68 weeks, along with lifestyle intervention. Those who took semaglutide lost 14.9 percent of their body weight compared with 2.4 percent for those who took the placebo.
In 2022, Ozempic exploded onto the scene and gained attention among celebrities and TikTok influencers who were trying to lose weight in short periods of time. Although Ozempic can help someone lose fifteen to twenty percent of their body weight, any lost weight reportedly comes right back if you do not take the drug every week. Thus, people who start a prescription typically do not stop taking it, even when they reach their goal weight.
People taking Ozempic for both FDA approved and off-label use may experience side effects. These include nausea, dehydration, fatigue, malaise, diarrhea, and constipation. In rare cases, the medication could increase the risk of pancreatitis. Because the drug has not been systematically tested in people with lower body weights it is possible that patients outside of the group the drug is intended for could experience more intense side effects. Without more research, it is unclear just how damaging those side effects could be.
In addition to these physical side effects, there are also psychological side effects. Dieting is one of the leading risks for developing an eating disorder and medications such as Ozempic could lead to more disordered eating as people try to avoid regaining weight.
Doctors say there is not enough evidence to know whether Ozempic might be beneficial or dangerous for people who fall outside of the FDA’s criteria. As tempting as the prospect of a “miracle drug” for weight loss may be, experts caution against people seeking out the medication for off-label use.