With the rising popularity of weight-loss drug injections, I’ve received many questions from patients about the pros, cons, and costs. While Ozempic (semaglutide) is perhaps the best known, it’s technically an agent approved only for type 2 diabetes that has been used off label for obesity. The same substance, semaglutide, is approved for use in obesity, but at a higher dose, under the brand name Wegovy. Alternatives are available, and results will vary depending on the specific agent used and the individual.
Ultimately, I decided to try these new injections for myself. I am not a paid representative for, nor an advocate of, any of these medications; I’m here only to share my personal experience.
In my discussions with patients about weight, I sometimes felt like an imposter. While I was overweight by medical standards, I fortunately had none of the underlying health problems. I wasn’t on medications for blood pressure nor did I have diabetes, but I was counseling people to lose weight and eat better while not always following my own advice.
Since having children and turning 40, my metabolism, like many other women’s, seems to have plummeted. I tried a number of older weight-loss medications, like phentermine and phendimetrazine, under the supervision of medical professionals.
Each time, the efforts worked for a short while, particularly when I followed good portion control and practiced moderate exercise. Once the side effects (that is, tachycardia, palpitations, mood changes, constipation) became intolerable, or I became tired or fearful of being on the medications too long, I’d stop and I would regain some of the weight.
When the newer subcutaneous injectable medications arrived on the scene and I started to talk to my patients about them, I was intrigued by their novel mode of action and seeming benefits.
These medications, glucagonlike peptide–1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, were first approved for type 2 diabetes, and it soon became apparent that patients were losing significant amounts of weight taking them, so manufacturers conducted further trials in obesity patients without type 2 diabetes.
The first of these, liraglutide, is injected daily and was first approved as Victoza for type 2 diabetes; it later received an additional approval for obesity, in December 2014, as Saxenda.
Semaglutide, another of the new GLP-1 agonists, was first approved for type 2 diabetes as Ozempic but again was found to lead to substantial weight loss, so a subsequent approval of the drug for obesity, as Wegovy, came in June 2021. Semaglutide is injected once a week.
Semaglutide was branded a “game changer” when it was licensed for obesity because the mean weight loss seen in trials was around 15%, more than for any other drug and approaching what could be achieved with bariatric surgery, some doctors said.
These medications work in a different way from the older weight loss drugs, which had focused on the use of amphetamines. The newer medications became very popular because treating obesity helps lower blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, kidney disease risk, and other comorbidities that occur with diabetes. Plus, for most people, there were fewer side effects.
I first tried Saxenda when it arrived on the market, via some samples that our pharmaceutical representative brought, both out of curiosity and to see if it would help me lose the stubborn baby weight. I ended up stopping the daily injections after my second or third week because of nausea and vomiting. I took a break, got a prescription for antinausea medicine, and tried again because it did indeed decrease my appetite. However, when I took my prescription to the pharmacy, my insurance wouldn’t cover it. It happens to doctors, too.
Fast-forward to 2017-2018. The baby weight was still holding on despite lifestyle changes, diet, and exercising. The newer drug classes hit the market, and again we had samples from our reps.
When Ozempic was on backorder, I switched to a low dose of Mounjaro (tirzepatide), a new dual GLP-1 and glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide agonist, approved for type 2 diabetes in May 2022, again using it off label as a weekly injection, as it isn’t currently approved for weight loss. However, it does produce significant weight loss and is awaiting approval for obesity.
With these new medications, I noticed that both my patients and I didn’t complain as much about nausea and vomiting, but I did experience stomach upset, constipation, and acid reflux.
The appetite suppression is effective. It slows down the emptying of the gut so I feel full longer. I’ve lost 30 lb with these weekly injections and would like to lose another 20 lb. I follow a routine of reasonable, portion-controlled eating and moderate exercise (30 minutes of cardiovascular activity at least two to three times a week).
Discontinuing the medications may cause rebound weight gain, especially if I’m no longer following a routine of healthy eating and/or moderate exercise. I deal with minimal constipation by taking stool softeners, and I take antacids for acid reflux.
Here’s what I recommend applying when working with patients who have obesity: First, explain how these medications work. Then conduct a health history to make sure these injections are right for them. Patients with a family history of pancreatic cancer can’t take these medications. You also want to monitor use in patients with a history of hypoglycemia so their blood sugar doesn’t drop too low. It’s also important to make sure your patients are able to afford the medication. My husband takes Ozempic for diabetes, and recently we were told that a refill would cost about $1,500 a month, even with insurance. “Covered” doesn’t necessarily mean affordable.
Take a baseline hemoglobin A1c and repeat it after the patient has been on the medication for 2-3 weeks. Also remind them that they can’t rely solely on the medication but need to practice portion control and healthier eating and to exercise more.
For myself, I want to lose those remaining 20 lb or so by eating healthy and being physically active without having to rely on medication for the rest of my life. Research on these medications is still early so we don’t know the long-term effects yet.
As clinicians, I feel it’s okay to be honest with our patients about our own personal struggles to help them understand that they are not alone and that losing weight is a challenge for everyone.
Dr. Swiner is a family physician in Durham, N.C. She reported no conflicts of interest.
A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.