Popular weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy linked to stomach paralysis

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Popular diabetes medications, such as Ozempic, are gaining a reputation as effective solutions for weight loss. Scientists from the University of British Columbia, however, are warning of potentially severe gastrointestinal side-effects after using these drugs — including stomach paralysis.

The study discovered that drugs classified as GLP-1 agonists, encompassing brand names like Wegovy, Ozempic, Rybelsus, and Saxenda, might increase the risks of grave medical complications. On top of stomach paralysis, they could also lead to pancreatitis and bowel obstruction.

Despite prior research indicating potential risks in diabetic patients, this new study is the first comprehensive population-level research focusing on non-diabetic individuals taking these medications exclusively for weight loss.

“Given the wide use of these drugs, these adverse events, although rare, must be considered by patients thinking about using them for weight loss,” says study first author Mohit Sodhi, a graduate of UBC’s experimental medicine program and fourth-year UBC medical student studying the adverse events of commonly prescribed medications, in a university release. “The risk calculus will differ depending on whether a patient is using these drugs for diabetes, obesity or just general weight loss. People who are otherwise healthy may be less willing to accept these potentially serious adverse events.”

Patient injecting themself in the stomach with an Ozempic (semaglutide) needle.
Patient injecting themself in the stomach with an Ozempic (semaglutide) needle. (Photo by Douglas Cliff on Shutterstock)

Initially designed to treat Type 2 diabetes, GLP-1 agonists witnessed a surge in usage as an alternative weight loss solution, amassing around 40 million prescriptions in the U.S. in 2022 alone.

It wasn’t until 2021 that certain versions of these drugs received official approval for obesity treatment. Prior clinical trials assessing these medications for weight loss had limited scope and couldn’t detect infrequent gastrointestinal issues.

“There have been anecdotal reports of some patients using these drugs for weight loss and then presenting with repeated episodes of nausea and vomiting secondary to a condition referred to as gastroparesis,” says stud senior author Dr. Mahyar Etminan, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the UBC faculty of medicine. “But until now, there hasn’t been any data from large epidemiologic studies.”

UBC scientists conducted a deep dive into health insurance records of nearly 16 million U.S. patients from 2006 to 2020. Their findings revealed that compared to another weight-loss drug, bupropion-naltrexone, GLP-1 agonists users had:

  • A risk 9.09 times greater of developing pancreatitis.
  • A risk 4.22 times greater of experiencing bowel obstruction.
  • A risk 3.67 times greater of suffering from gastroparesis.

Although these occurrences are rare, with the drugs’ vast user base, it could mean hundreds of thousands of individuals might encounter these complications.

“These drugs are becoming increasingly accessible, and it is concerning that, in some cases, people can simply go online and order these kinds of medications when they may not have a full understanding of what could potentially happen,” notes Sodhi. “This goes directly against the mantra of informed consent.”

The team hopes that this crucial data will prompt a revision in the warning labels of these medications, especially concerning the risk of gastroparesis.

“This is critical information for patients to know so they can seek timely medical attention and avoid serious consequences,” says Sodhi.

The study is published in the journal JAMA.

You might also be interested in:

YouTube video

Follow on Google News

About the Author

StudyFinds Staff

StudyFinds sets out to find new research that speaks to mass audiences — without all the scientific jargon. The stories we publish are digestible, summarized versions of research that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer