What you should know about type 2 diabetes medications for weight loss

pharmacist holding a prescription while pulling open a drawer of medications

If you spend much time online, you’ve likely come across content about a drug class called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GPL-1). These drugs include brand names like Ozempic, Wegovy, Trulicity and Mounjaro to name a few. While most of these drugs are approved to treat type 2 diabetes, a couple are approved to treat obesity.

For people who’ve struggled for years to lose weight through diet and exercise, these drugs have offered hope of reaching a healthier state. However, this can also strain the supply of the drugs for diabetes.

“We’ve seen an increase in interest for prescriptions for Ozempic and similar drugs rather than those for obesity in the past year in Tennessee,” says Sarah Smith, a pharmacist with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “This has caused a supply shortage, with many consulting their providers about taking these drugs for weight loss after seeing successful results in others.”

WellTuned talked with Sarah to learn more about these drugs and what people should know before taking them.

What is Ozempic?

Sarah Smith: Ozempic is one of a class of drugs called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). The FDA has approved GLP-1s, including Ozempic, to treat type 2 diabetes. They’ve approved Wegovy and Saxenda to treat obesity. These drugs work by mimicking the effects of GLP-1. This is a hormone naturally present in our bodies that helps regulate blood sugar levels and appetite. In general, these drugs help your body use and manage carbohydrates that you eat in a way that helps prevent blood sugar spikes after eating.

While Ozempic is the best known and most popular, there are a variety of drugs in the category.

Brand Name FDA Approval Consumption Method
Ozempic (semaglutide) Type 2 diabetes Once weekly injection
Trulicity (dulaglutide) Type 2 diabetes Once weekly injection
Rybelsus (semaglutide) Type 2 diabetes Once daily pill
Mounjaro (tirzepatide) Type 2 diabetes Once weekly injection
Bydureon (exenatide extended-release) Type 2 diabetes Once weekly injection
Victoza (liraglutide) Type 2 diabetes Once daily injection
Saxenda (liraglutide) Obesity Once daily injection
Wegovy (semaglutide) Obesity Once weekly injection

Are GLP-1 drugs safe?

Sarah Smith: Any medication has associated risks and benefits. But the FDA has approved these drugs for diabetes and/or obesity because they have been found to provide benefits that outweigh known and potential risks for the intended conditions.

For the people who have diabetes or obesity, GLP-1 medications are great tools to have in our treatment arsenal. They are effective in lowering blood sugar levels and promoting weight loss. They also help prevent major cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke, which are common for people with diabetes.

Possible side effects for GLP-1 drugs include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation the pancreas)

It’s important to note that these drugs can interact with other medications. So, be sure to tell your provider about other drugs you’re taking if they suggest a GLP-1 for you. People who have a personal or family history of a rare thyroid cancer (medullary carcinoma) shouldn’t take this class of drug.

What about for people who don’t have type 2 diabetes or obesity?

Sarah Smith: A lot of recent demand for GLP-1 drugs are for people who don’t have the FDA-approved conditions of type 2 diabetes or obesity. When they’re prescribed without these conditions present, it’s considered off label. The rise in off label prescriptions for these drugs has caused shortages. As a result, some prescriptions for these drugs could require a prior authorization to be covered under a person’s health insurance plan, to ensure those who need them for health reasons have access to it.

As with any medicine, it’s important to approach taking GLP-1 drugs with caution. You and your provider should consider your individual health, diagnosis, the potential side effects and your desired long-term outcome of taking these drugs.

WellTuned Guide to Diabetes.

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.