Ozempic, a medication created for those with Type 2 diabetes, is being touted by celebrities and social media influencers for its weight-loss benefits – and it appears a growing number of Canadians are taking it to shift the pounds.
Nearly 100 Canadians reached out to CTVNews.ca to share their experiences with losing weight while taking the drug. Most respondents said they have lost dozens of pounds after taking Ozempic for months and, in some cases, years.
Several users reported losing about one kilogram per week soon after starting the drug.
Respondents ranged from 19 to 75 years of age and a large portion said they had been living with obesity before taking Ozempic, which was prescribed by their doctor for weight loss. The emailed responses have not all been independently verified.
By the time Lauren Miller started taking Ozempic to lose weight, she had tried just about everything else, she said.
“I was a very active person. I would run regularly, I ate very healthy … I never drank, never smoked,” the 41-year-old told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Feb. 27. “But no matter what I did, I would always continue to gain weight … I was always hungry no matter what I ate.”
Although Miller was not diabetic, her endocrinologist still suggested she take Ozempic. Since she started on the drug in January 2020, Miller’s weight dropped from about 103 kilograms (228 pounds) to 81 kilograms (179 pounds). Before taking Ozempic, Miller had a BMI of 35.7 and was living with obesity. Her BMI is now 27.9 and she is considered overweight.
Lauren Miller appears in this composite photo. The image on the left was taken in February 2019 and the image on the right was taken in January 2023.
“I’m getting the energy back … and feeling comfortable in my skin again,” the Ottawa resident said. “It’s absolutely changed my life.”
Since she began taking Ozempic on Feb. 12, Melissa Sanderson-Alsbergas has lost three kilograms (seven pounds).
The 29-year-old from Kitchener, Ont. said her doctor prescribed Ozempic to help her lose weight. She does not have diabetes and is currently living with obesity, hoping to bring her weight down to 185 pounds.
Sanderson-Alsbergas suffers from postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), an autonomic nervous system disorder that affects a person’s heart rate. Her condition makes physical activity a challenge, she said.
“I live a more sedentary lifestyle because of my chronic illness [and] it makes it a lot harder to lose weight just eating healthy,” she told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Feb. 28.
Aside from some nausea and light bruising around her injection site, Sanderson-Alsbergas said she has not experienced many side-effects when taking Ozempic. “So far, so good,” she said.
Melissa Sanderson-Alsbergas appears in this photo taken in July 2022.
SO…WHAT IS OZEMPIC?
Ozempic is an injectable medication produced by drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk and administered once a week. It contains semaglutide, which is similar to the GLP-1 hormone naturally produced in the intestines, explains Dr. Jordanna Kapeluto, an endocrinologist and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.
Also known as glucagon-like peptide 1, the GLP-1 hormone works with the pancreas to release insulin and balance blood glucose levels.
Semaglutide medications, such as Ozempic, can reduce food cravings and appetite by sending signals to the brain, which can result in weight loss, Kapeluto said. These medications also cause a delay in gastric emptying, which refers to the time it takes for food to move through the stomach. This can lower blood glucose levels after a meal.
“For certain individuals, their brain cannot stop sending signals [saying] that they have to eat,” Kapeluto told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on March 3. “When you’re on [Ozempic], it’s controlling those signals that are leading to weight gain.”
HAS OZEMPIC BEEN APPROVED FOR WEIGHT LOSS?
While Ozempic was approved by Health Canada in 2018 for adults with Type 2 diabetes to help patients manage their blood sugar levels, the medication has not been approved for weight loss in Canada or anywhere else in the world. Novo Nordisk Canada wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on Feb. 22 that “Ozempic is not approved for chronic weight management.”
However, under the brand name Wegovy, Ozempic’s main active ingredient, semaglutide, was authorized by Health Canada for weight loss among those living with obesity. Wegovy is also manufactured by Novo Nordisk.
Wegovy is not currently available in Canada due to “an unprecedented demand” for the medication in the United States, according to Novo Nordisk Canada. Because of this, it is common for physicians who specialize in obesity management to prescribe Ozempic for weight loss, even though patients may not have diabetes, said Dr. Tasneem Sajwani, medical director at the Edmonton Weight Management Centre and Family Practice.
Prescribing medications for purposes not authorized by Health Canada is known as off-label drug use.
According to Health Canada, provinces and territories can use approved health products outside the scope of their label in certain cases. In an email to CTVNews.ca on March 2, the agency described this as “practice of medicine,” which takes into account a physician’s diagnosis of the patient’s symptoms when deciding which treatment would be most appropriate.
In recent months, Elon Musk, Chelsea Handler and other prominent figures have spoken about using Wegovy and Ozempic for weight loss. Videos with the hashtag #ozempic have amassed nearly 627 million views on TikTok, with countless users sharing their experiences with using Ozempic to lose weight. Earlier this year, Australia’s drug regulator launched an investigation on social media influencers promoting the drug as a weight-loss solution, which it describes as “unlawful advertising.”
In December, supply shortages were reported among Ozempic in the U.S. due to a “demand increase for the drug.” But as of Feb. 23, there has been limited availability of the medication in certain dosages, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Meanwhile, Wegovy continues to be available in the U.S., and no semaglutide shortages are currently being reported in Canada.
OZEMPIC USERS SAY NAUSEA, VOMITING COMMON SIDE EFFECTS
According to Ozempic’s website, common side-effects of the medication include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and constipation. These were many of the side-effects experienced by those who wrote to CTVNews.ca as well. Ozempic can also cause more serious side-effects, such as pancreatitis and kidney failure.
For Denise Melanson, the side-effects of nausea and vomiting were so bad that she stopped taking Ozempic after about five weeks.
The 68-year-old started taking the drug in July last year. Shortly after, Melanson said she was vomiting in the middle of the night and experiencing severe acid reflux, along with diarrhea and bloating.
“I had friends that were taking Ozempic [who were] a little nauseated just at the very beginning,” she told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Feb. 28. “It seemed to me like I’m the only one that can’t take this.”
Denise Melanson appears in this photo taken in February.
The Windsor, Ont. resident is not diabetic and had a BMI of 27 when she began taking Ozempic. She also has high cholesterol, she said. After nearly a week of experiencing the acid reflux and vomiting at night, she stopped taking Ozempic and is now experimenting with activities such as swimming to stay active.
While on Ozempic, a number of users also said they noticed a change in how they thought about food, spending less time worrying about what they eat or counting calories. This can be attributed to the drug, Kapeluto said.
“Some individuals are constantly bombarded with signals of hunger or thoughts of, ‘Where am I going to get my next meal?’” Kapeluto said. “Ozempic can dampen down those signals and it can really lead to them just being able to have better quality of life [and] better mental health.”
This was the case for Rae Munoz, who began taking Ozempic in early 2020. At the time, she weighed about 91 kilograms (200 pounds) and was considered overweight with a BMI of 29, she said. Although not diabetic herself, Munoz is at high risk of developing the disease, since many of her relatives have diabetes.
Her doctor suggested Ozempic to help manage her weight and stabilize her blood sugar. The Edmonton resident exercises regularly and constantly watches what she eats in addition to taking Ozempic, she said.
Rae Munoz appears in this composite photo. The image on the left was taken in June 2013 and the image on the right was taken in April 2022.
Now, at 75 kilograms (165 pounds), Munoz’s BMI is 24. Since starting Ozempic, she said her relationship with food and weight loss has also changed for the better.
“I’m not quite as obsessed as I used to be [with losing weight], I don’t have the appetite that I used to,” the 44-year-old told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Feb. 27. “I used to get really stressed out about eating too much [and] gaining the weight back … Now, I don’t worry so I can have a life.”
WHAT DOES RESEARCH SHOW ON THE EFFICACY OF SEMAGLUTIDE?
A series of trials funded by Novo Nordisk have been launched in recent years to assess how effective semaglutide is at promoting weight loss, regardless of whether patients have Type 2 diabetes. The first trial, published in 2021, involved nearly 2,000 adults who did not have diabetes and were overweight or living with obesity. Authors of the study were based in countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.
Those who received weekly doses of semaglutide up to 2.4 mg saw their body weight drop by an average of about 15 per cent after 68 weeks. Meanwhile, participants who took a placebo saw an average decrease of 2.4 per cent in body weight over the same amount of time. Authors concluded that participants saw a “clinically relevant” decrease in body weight.
A second trial, published in October 2022, looked at the durability of weight loss with weekly doses of semaglutide. The study involved 304 participants who were overweight or living with obesity, none of which had diabetes. Results showed an average drop of 15.2 per cent in body weight after two years of using semaglutide.
However, research also shows the potential for those who use semaglutide to regain some of the weight they lost once they stop using the drug. One study published the Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism journal in April last year shows that one year after discontinuing use of semaglutide, participants regained two-thirds of the weight they lost while using the drug. The study was also funded by Novo Nordisk and involved 327 participants.
“If you take away this medication, all of those hormones, all of those chemicals will surge back and it can lead to regain of weight,” Kapeluto said.
OZEMPIC NOT MEANT AS A ‘QUICK FIX’: EXPERT
By portraying Ozempic as a short-term solution for those hoping to “lose a few pounds,” obesity experts such as Sajwani say this delegitimizes the use of this medication for those who truly need it.
“It perpetuates that stigma … that people who want to lose weight are losing it because of vanity reasons,” Sajwani told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on March 3. “It takes away from those patients that carry extra weight [and] are struggling with complications of obesity.”
“It paints everyone with the same brush,” Sajwani added.
There is also a chance these medications may not work as effectively in people who aren’t living with obesity, Kapeluto said, and viewing them as a “quick fix” makes it harder to recognize that obesity is a serious medical condition.
“With the popularity of this medication on social media … it’s kind of framing a medication that has a true medical benefit for obesity as more of a cosmetic thing,” Kapeluto said. “[But] for many individuals, this is not cosmetic. It’s a treatment that’s important to both their physical and mental health.”
Kapeluto said she and her colleagues continue to fight for obesity to be viewed as a serious medical condition by the public, one that can be treated with medication. But some patients still struggle with accessing drugs such as Ozempic for weight loss due to a lack of insurance coverage.
Many private insurance plans and some provincial drug benefit programs offer coverage for Ozempic when prescribed for those with Type 2 diabetes. However, the same coverage may not exist when the medication is prescribed for other reasons such as weight loss, Kapeluto said. At its full dose, a one-month supply of Ozempic can cost patients between $250 and $420 without insurance coverage, Sajwani and Kapeluto said.