The FDA estimates that nearly 75 percent of Americans are overweight. With numbers like this, it is no wonder there has been an uptick in people seeking medications to aid weight loss like Wegovy. Adding to the increase in demand are notable individuals like Elon Musk (and many others) admitting taking these drugs to drop unwanted pounds, which can help overweight users lose about 15% of their body weight. The increased demand is reflected in sales recently reported by Bloomberg stating that Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer, is expected to see a 20% increase in profits this year as a result.
Last month we wrote about the aesthetic effects of these drugs on the skin, especially for middle-aged users who can suffer loose skin because of the fast weight loss. Now researchers from China have released a new study warning that the drugs can be linked to potentially deadly side effects—something that was overlooked in the trials. Since the risks are no longer just aesthetic, we thought this information was important to share in case you or your clients are taking these types of medications or considering doing so.
Here is the latest information that you need to know.
What Are The Deadly Risks Associated With Wegovy & Ozempic?
In case you didn’t read the previous article, Wegovy, and drugs like it work by mimicking glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), a hormone that is produced in the intestines that helps to regulate appetite and food intake. The FDA approved Wegovy for weight management, Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity in 2021. Ozempic on the other hand was approved as a treatment for Type 2 diabetes in 2017, which makes its use for weight loss considered to be “off label”.
While both Wegovy and Ozempic are generally considered to be safe, they have only been studied in patients for up to a year, long-term use could put some patients at an elevated risk for a potentially fatal gastrointestinal condition that requires surgery to fix. Researchers from China recently wrote a published letter to the editor of medical journal Acta Pharmaceutical Sinica B expressing their concerns that beyond a year, the risk of intestinal obstruction in Type 2 diabetics peaks around a year and a half and can cause death in some instances and requires surgical intervention.
In experiments performed on mice, at about 20-months of taking GLP-1 drugs consistently, the intestine became enlarged. The researchers pointed out that the long-term effects may have been in Wegovy’s study since it only went up to 16 months. The researchers also reviewed previous research on humans that suggests that any users of GLP-1 drugs are four times more likely to suffer from intestinal obstructions.
What Are Intestinal Obstructions?
Intestinal obstructions occur when a blockage that prevents food and beverages from passing through the intestines, which can occur from digestive system damage, an inflamed or stretched intestine, or cancer. The Chinese researchers cited, among other sources, a 2022 study in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics that noted these drugs lead to increased insulin secretion, helpful in lowering blood glucose levels, but can also reduce gastrointestinal motility, leading to constipation—and, thus, potential intestinal obstruction.
One of the earliest signs of an intestinal obstruction is loss of appetite and constipation. If left untreated, intestinal obstructions can cause tissue death from the cut-off of the blood supply to part of the intestine causing the intestinal wall to die. Sufferers of intestinal blocks, which are responsible for roughly 30,000 deaths a year in the United States, are also at a higher risk of peritonitis, a deadly infection of the abdomen.
Not All Doctors Agree About The Risks
To make matters more confusing, not all doctors agree on the risks. Dr Shauna Levy, an obesity medicine specialist at Tulane University who was not involved with the latest study, recently told DailyMail.com, “It is very difficult to tell if the obstruction is a direct result of the medication.” Intestinal obstruction is a known symptom of diabetes too, meaning the study could just be finding proof of that symptom at a large scale. “Physicians should consider a patient’s history of bowel obstruction before prescribing this medication.”
Levy cited a 2022 study conducted by scientists from across the globe including the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and the University of Pennsylvania, that followed semaglutide users for two years, and found no increased risk of intestine obstruction among this population. Levy continued, “This does highlight an important point that GLP-1 RA are medicine. They should be prescribed by a health care provider who can screen the patient beforehand for a history of contraindications to the medication.”
Weight loss specialist Dr. Christopher McGowan, who is based out of North Carolina agreed with Levy. He shared his views with DailyMail and stated, “’While this discussion raises possible concern, it is difficult to extrapolate these findings to conclude any potential impact on humans. While the clinical studies of GLP1 medications are indeed of relatively short term (less than 2 years duration), the GLP-1 medications as a whole have been in use and studied for more than a decade, which provides general reassurance.”
Medications always come with risks. Sometimes there is a choice in the matter. In other instances, as with a medical condition, sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks (or you don’t have much of a choice). Staying informed on the latest information as it pertains to the risks is important, especially with new drugs that have limited human research, like GLP-1 drugs.
While Wegovy does seem to be generally safe, more research is needed to properly assess the risks for individuals who don’t have Type 2 diabetes. Talking to your primary doctor and doing a proper medical screening to fully understand your personal risks is the best option—especially if you (or your clients) are considering taking it for weight loss.