Could popular weight loss drugs treat addiction?

New evidence suggests drugs like Wegovy or Ozempic could help fight addictions to things like alcohol or cigarettes.
Posted at 11:28 AM, Jun 17, 2023

The drugs Ozempic and Wegovy have taken America by storm. Their main ingredient, semaglutide, is used to treat Type 2 diabetes.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are now using the drugs to lose weight, including celebrities from billionaire Elon Musk to TikTok influencer Remi Bader

But new evidence suggests the drugs could also help fight addictions to things like alcohol or cigarettes. That's created even more interest in the drugs, along with concerns about an already tight supply

The key to these medications is a gut hormone called GLP-1. 

"What GLP-1 does is it's released following meal ingestion," says Simon Cork of Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom. "It tells the pancreas that you've eaten a meal, you're about to get a big bolus of sugar coming into your circulatory system and it stimulates insulin release."

"Insulin is the way that your body gets rid of blood sugar," adds Cork. "We've been using those drugs for about ten years now to treat diabetes.

A clinical trial of GLP-1 in diabetes patients a few years ago gave early clues about deeper effects, says Dr. Anders Fink Jensen of the University of Copenhagen. 

"Some of the diabetes doctors we worked together with came to us and said it was interesting that some of their patients reported that they didn't really have the same craving for alcohol any longer. And some of them actually wanted to take a break from the medication when they go to Italy on wine tasting holidays."

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Scientists started new research, giving GLP-1 to rats.

"We went back into the lab and so did people from Sweden and researchers from the us too, and tried to investigate in in rodents and in in mice and rats whether it holds true," says Jensen. 

The various groups tested the effect of the drug on rodents that were given cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines and opioids.

Taking the drugs made rodents have "less craving" or fewer "rewarding effects of getting these compounds."

In a different clinical trial on medically obese humans, semaglutide had similar effects.

"Participants that had a BMI above 30 at the beginning of the study reduced their alcohol intake and also what we call heavy drinking days a lot compared to the placebo group," said Dr. Mette Kruse Klausen, of the University of Copenhagen. 

"Their brains didn't have as much activity in the reward center compared to the placebo group. So we kind of think that that's a thing of that the brains were more desensitized."

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Federal health officials say some medications being sold may not contain the same active ingredient as FDA-approved semaglutide products.


Now that the drugs are available with a prescription, some patients taking Wegovy or Ozempic for weight loss are seeing those impacts on their behavior, they say.

"What people are referring to as bad habits are reducing as well," says Cork.

Clinical trials focused on seeing the effect of GLP-1 drugs on addiction are underway.

However, there's fear that diabetics patients who need to drug to treat their conditions may experience another shortage if the drug is also being given to treat addiction.

"As with all other medications, that primarily we should use it for the approved indications," says Dr. Fink-Jensen. "It seems to be a not optimal way of doing it if it comes to that situation that we can't have enough medication for our diabetic patients."

Studies into the medication's effects on addiction could look at how stopping the drug might affect addictive behaviors. 

That's important since it's common for hunger, for example, to return after a patient stops Ozempic or Wegovy.