Weight-loss drugs may also curb addictions

Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 10:55 AM CDT
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(CNN) - Weight-loss medications like Ozempic aren’t just helping people shed pounds. Many patients say since taking the drugs, they’ve lost interest in addictive behaviors.

The science behind the medications may explain how the two are connected.

Cheri Ferguson has swapped her vape pen for an Ozempic pen.

“I thought, ‘I’m not enjoying vaping so I may as well just put this into the battery bin at work, and I’ll see how long it can go without it,’” Ferguson said. “And that was 54 days ago.”

She started using the medication 11 weeks ago to combat weight gained during the pandemic that she says was increasing her risk of diabetes.

A smoker for much of her life, Ferguson switched to vaping in July. But after starting Ozempic, she says something changed.

“It’s like someone’s just come along and switched the light on, and you can see the room for what it is,” she said. “And all of these vapes and cigarettes that you’ve had over the years, it just - they don’t look attractive anymore. It’s very, very strange.”

Ferguson is one of many patients taking drugs for weight loss who say they also lost interest in some addictive behaviors.

Doctors told CNN that patients most commonly report an effect on alcohol use.

It may be because these drugs, in a class known as GLP-1, have an effect not just in the gut but also the brain.

It’s something being studied at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, where researchers published a paper showing semaglutide, the active ingredient in Ozempic, reduced what they called “binge-like” alcohol drinking in rodents.

“We believe that at least one of the mechanisms of how these drugs reduce alcohol drinking is by reducing the rewarding effects of alcohol, such as those related to a neurotransmitter in our brain, which is dopamine,” said Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, NIH researcher. “So, these medications are likely to make alcohol less rewarding.”

It’s not just alcohol and nicotine, patients have even told The Atlantic it had effects on behaviors like nail-biting and online shopping.

“There is a lot of overlap on the neurobiological mechanisms that regulate addictive behaviors in general, so it’s possible that medications like semaglutide, by acting on this specific mechanism in the brain, they may help people with a variety of addictive behaviors,” Leggio said.

Clinical trials in humans are needed to prove that. One set is underway at the University of North Carolina, looking at semaglutide’s effect on alcohol and tobacco use.

Ferguson says Ozempic has helped her lose 38 pounds. Even better, she says, is how it’s made her feel.

“The weight that it takes off your mind is far greater than any pounds that can come off your body,” she said.

Neither Novo Nordisk nor Eli Lilly is currently running trials to look at the effect of their medicines on addiction.

It traditionally hasn’t been a big market for drug companies, although doctors say there is a huge need for better treatments.