Ozempic was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017, but the medication has earned a ton of buzz this past year. The drug, which is designed to treat patients with type 2 diabetes, has been linked with a slew of health improvements in recent studies, from weight loss to Alzheimer’s disease.
Ozempic, which is a brand name for semaglutide, is an injectable medication that has become so popular that it’s currently in shortage. So, what does the data say about Ozempic and where do experts think this is all headed? Here’s the deal.
Ozempic makes it clear on its official website that the medication is not approved to be used as a weight loss drug. However, the company also notes that adults with type 2 diabetes who took Ozempic lost up to 14 pounds in one study, and fellow semaglutide medication Wegovy is FDA-approved for weight loss.
As a result, Ozempic is often used off-label to help people who have obesity lose weight, says Kunal Shah, M.D., an assistant professor in the division of endocrinology at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center.
Ozempic is in a class of medications known as GLP-1 agonists. “These medications slow down the transit of food from your stomach to your gut,” Dr. Shah says. Ozempic also stimulates the release of insulin, a hormone that helps escort blood sugar to your cells where it can be used for food, he says. It may even help make you feel less hungry.
There is data to suggest Ozempic can be a successful weight loss drug. One JAMA Network Open study found people who had weekly injections of Ozempic lost an average of 15 pounds over three months. Over six months, that number increased to 27 pounds.
“We’re seeing 15 percent to 18 percent total body weight loss with semaglutide,” Dr. Shah says. “It’s really significant.”
The data on Ozempic’s link to treating addiction is less clear, but there is some research to suggest the medication may help people have less cravings for drugs and alcohol. A recent study of rodents published in JCI Insight found that semaglutide reduced binge-like alcohol drinking in mice and rats. The findings, the researchers wrote, provide “support for clinical testing of semaglutide as a potentially novel pharmacotherapy for alcohol use disorder.”
Another rodent study, this one published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, looked at GLP-1 agonists like Ozempic as a potential treatment for cocaine use disorder. The researchers found that the medication helped regulate the mice’s behavior with cocaine and even decreased the high they felt when they were exposed to stimulant drugs. The researchers said in the study that the findings presented “compelling evidence” that GLP-1 agonists could help prevent relapse.
There are also a slew of anecdotal reports online of people who say taking semaglutide helped reduce their cravings for alcohol, nail-biting, and even shopping.
The link between Ozempic and Alzheimer’s disease prevention is less clear, but it’s being explored. There are two worldwide studies—EVOKE and EVOKE+—that are happening now to determine the efficacy and safety of using semaglutide medications like Ozempic to delay early-onset dementia.
Why? There are a few theories behind why some people develop Alzheimer’s disease and, with that, some thoughts on how Ozempic may help. One is that insulin resistance, which is when a hormone (insulin) that moves glucose from your blood into your cells doesn’t function as well as it should, could lead to clumping of amyloid-beta plaques that kill brain cells. But Ozempic helps stimulate the use of insulin in the body, which could theoretically counteract this.
Another is that, because Ozempic lowers inflammation in the body, it could theoretically do the same in the brain, lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The final theory is that there’s something about Ozempic itself that can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. One five-year study of GLP-1 agonists, for example, found that people on Ozempic who had type 2 diabetes had lower rates of dementia than those who didn’t take the medication.
Research has even linked semaglutide, the ingredient in Ozempic and Wegovy, to improvements in heart disease.
One study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, randomly assigned 529 patients who had heart failure to either take semaglutide or a placebo for a year. At the end of the study, the researchers found that those who took semaglutide had lost 13.3 percent of their body weight (compared to 2.6 percent of body weight in the placebo group). The semaglutide group could also walk farther, had fewer symptoms of heart failure, and had fewer physical limitations than the placebo group.
The researchers also found that the drug reduced other major cardiovascular issues by 20 percent.
Ozempic hasn’t been directly linked to a boost in mental health, but The New York Times recently pointed out that some psychiatrists have been prescribing the medication to help balance the weight gain effects some people experience on antidepressants and antipsychotic medications.
What doctors think
Doctors say there’s definitely a lot of attention around Ozempic, both in and out of the medical community. “There are many reasons for the buzz,” says Jamie Alan, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University. “One is because of all the clinical research around Ozempic, and other compounds in the class of drugs. Another reason is the social media buzz around using Ozempic for weight loss.”
Alan says all the hype around the medication reminds her of when statins, which are a class of drugs that are designed to lower cholesterol, first hit the market. “As they were being used more and more, researchers and clinicians were discovering benefits when using the drugs,” she says. “I think that this class of drugs opens up really exciting avenues for research and clinical medicine.”
But it can be difficult to know if the perks of Ozempic are due to the medication itself or the weight loss, says Mir Ali, M.D., a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif. “When patients lose weight, a range of conditions improve,” he says. “Heart disease, diabetes…it reduces your risk of cancer, because excess weight is a risk factor for cancer… . So is that from the Ozempic or the weight loss?” Ali says it’s “hard to separate the benefits of the weight loss from benefits of the drug alone.”
It’s also important to remember that Ozempic is “not without risks,” Alan says. Among other things, it may cause side effects like nausea and has been linked to serious complications like stomach paralysis.
“While taking this drug is a gamechanger for some, always remember to speak with your healthcare provider to see if this medication is right for you,” Alan says.
And, if you’ve been prescribed Ozempic for weight loss, Ali recommends viewing it as another tool to help you on your health journey vs. a magic pill. “This is a tool to help you switch to a healthier lifestyle,” he says. “If you do this along with eating the right foods and increasing your exercise and activity, you’ll have a better chance of success.”