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Can Ozempic, Wegovy, and Other Weight Loss Drugs Curb Addictive Behaviors?
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Can Ozempic, Wegovy, and Other Weight Loss Drugs Curb Addictive Behaviors?

Can Ozempic, Wegovy, and Other Weight Loss Drugs Curb Addictive Behaviors?

Weight loss drugs have taken the world by storm for their appetite-curbing qualities – but some doctors have found that they appear to have a positive effect on other compulsive behaviors prone to addiction. While these reports are mostly anecdotal on the human side, animal studies have tested the effects of glucagon-like-peptide-1 (GLP-1) and found promising results. These tentative findings beg the question: will weight loss drugs soon be tested and prescribed off-label as part of an addiction recovery program?

These unintended consequences are a telltale sign of the way attitudes toward weight loss have changed and how traditional weight loss has evolved rapidly as these medications shed their stigma and become more socially acceptable. The unhealthy diet culture no longer rules weight loss propagated in the early aughts; instead, it’s embraced an evidence-based but holistic approach.

Traditional weight loss programs now focus on nutritional and behavioral science to change our relationship with food. Instead of structuring plans around deprivation or prepackaged meals, programs focus on a solid support system, such as coaches and peers who can share tips, recipes, and solutions for everyday challenges. Considering biological factors, weight loss medications may be combined to enhance overall efficacy. While weight loss drugs have had dramatic effects on the overweight or obese, researchers still have plenty of groundwork to cover in terms of establishing their viability as an addiction therapy measure.

How weight loss drugs work

Ozempic and Wegovy contain the same active ingredient, semaglutide, a GLP-1 receptor agonist. The brain’s satiety center is targeted by stimulating these receptors, making one feel less hungry. This results in a lower overall caloric intake and, when combined with other lifestyle changes like exercise, can result in weight loss. However, only Wegovy has been FDA-approved for weight management: company-funded research saw participants have an average weight loss of 15% or about 34 pounds.

Ozempic is currently only prescribed off-label for weight loss, as it’s primarily used to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood sugar levels in those with type 2 diabetes. However, doctors and addiction researchers alike have seen an unprecedented amount of clinical and anecdotal evidence for both drugs’ effects on impulsive behaviors. Some patients reported reduced alcohol consumption, some have quit vaping, while others have noticed a marked reduction in online shopping and even gambling. The explanation for this connection appears to reside in a particular part of the brain.

The mind-body connection

The effects of GLP-1s are well-documented in nearly a dozen animal studies; this year, they were found to curb alcohol intake in mice and rats. Some reports have noted that patients on Ozempic have a lowered consumption of nicotine and even opioids. Several human clinical trials are currently underway to study these effects further – and neuroscientists believe it’s because the mechanisms in the brain that propel people to overeat are the same ones that can cause addiction. GLP-1 targets the brain’s reward neurocircuitry by lowering dopamine release after eating indulgent foods, and these effects overlap with other behaviors targeted by that very same system. All this has opened a veritable Pandora’s Box for the potential applications of weight loss drugs on other impulse-driven tendencies. Beyond drugs and alcohol, studies are emerging that focus on GLP-1’s effect on sexual activity in rodents, with results showing decreased sexual interactions in male mice.

While the future of weight loss medications as an addiction management tool is giving researchers some optimism, drug manufacturers are not actively exploring this possibility at the moment, citing research complications. But profit-related concerns may be another factor. After all, only 13 percent of people with drug use disorders receive treatment. On the other hand, the overwhelming demand for semaglutide and similar drugs has resulted in a global shortage that’s projected to continue well into 2024. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to see which use case for these drugs would make the most business sense.

That said, drug, alcohol, and opioid addiction is as much a public health crisis as increasing rates of obesity, if not more pressing. The hope is that with continued research, addiction specialists can build a compelling case for the use of weight loss drugs to enhance not just external physical health but also the psychological health of society at large.

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