When wonder drugs lead to pancreatitis, gastroparesis and bowel obstruction

One of the worst issues with weight loss plans is that for a lot of people, they don’t work for long.

Research suggests roughly 80 percent of people who lose significant body fat won’t maintain that degree of weight loss for a year. In fact, one meta-analysis of studies found dieters regain on average more than half of what they lose within two years.

But whether it’s for better health or lifestyle, when a new weight loss method is discovered, there’s no shortage of people willing to jump on the bandwagon — especially when the answer seems only a pill or an injection away…

The latest of these discoveries is the GLP-1 agonist class of medicines. Originally intended to treat diabetes, doctors eventually saw the patients using these drugs were also losing significant amounts of weight. Once this became apparent, a whole new class of weight-loss drugs was born.

Unfortunately, while these drugs have become hugely popular, there are some big drawbacks to them that even doctors admit. There’s also the black box warning, rebound weight and the outrageous cost—about $1,400 a month if insurance doesn’t cover it. And yes, these drugs hit a weight loss plateau too.

And now we’re learning these drugs may set users up for stomach issues that could lead to increased risk for diabetes, poor nutritional absorption and pancreatic cancer.

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GLP-1 agonists and stomach issues

The way GLP-1 agonists work— like Wegovy, Ozempic, Saxenda, and Victoza — is that they slow the speed at which food passes through the stomach, making people feel fuller for longer. Therein lies a problem…

Researchers in Canada analyzed data from 5,411 non-diabetic obese patients taking various GLP-1 agonists for weight loss. The results were sobering, with a number of these patients experiencing various digestive issues.

What the study found was an increased risk of problems including pancreatitis, gastroparesis and bowel obstruction in patients using GLP-1 drugs, compared with a medication that doesn’t activate the same chemical pathways as GLP-1.

It’s important to note that while the risk is increased for GLP-1 drugs, it’s still relatively small. For instance, 0.8 percent of people taking the GLP-1 medication Saxenda reported bowel obstructions, compared with 0.17 percent of people taking Contrave, a non-GLP-1 drug.

Still, that’s a fourfold increase in risk of bowel obstruction for patients taking Saxenda.

“When you have millions of people using these drugs, you know, a 1 percent risk still translates to many people who may experience these events,” epidemiologist Mahyar Etminan from the University of British Columbia tells CNN.

These are not minor digestive problems…

  • Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that, if it lasts long-term, could raise your risk of diabetes, poor nutritional absorption and pancreatic cancer.
  • Gastroparesis is a paralysis of the stomach that can lead to acid reflux, malnutrition and dehydration, blood sugar imbalances and stomach obstruction.
  • And bowel obstruction is a potentially deadly medical emergency that requires immediate intervention, often surgery, to repair.

This isn’t the first time this connection has been made. The companies that manufacture GLP-1 agonists have acknowledged the possibility of digestive complications, but say they are known side effects and only affect a small fraction of users.

Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already ruled that Ozempic should come with a warning indicating the variety of gastrointestinal disorders reported by users of the medication. It’s likely only a matter of time before they require the same of other GLP-1 agonists.

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More research is needed

The study didn’t cover all GLP-1-related treatments and didn’t go into why these drugs are increasing the associated health risks. Nor did it prove cause and effect. However, the results indicate further investigation is needed in this area.

“Given the wide use of these drugs, these adverse events, although rare, must be considered by patients who are contemplating using the drugs for weight loss because the risk-benefit calculus for this group might differ from that of those who use them for diabetes,” the researchers write in their published paper.

Luckily, if you’re truly committed to losing weight and keeping it off, there are a number of natural alternatives to these drugs that I wrote about in a past article. Any of these methods can help you be one of those who successfully beat the weight loss odds.

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Popular New Weight Loss Drugs Linked to Digestive Problems — ScienceAlert

Risk of Gastrointestinal Adverse Events Associated With Glucagon-Like Peptide-1 Receptor Agonists for Weight Loss — JAMA

Unexpected Clues Emerge About Why Diets Fail — Scientific American

Researchers link popular weight loss drugs to serious digestive problems for ‘hundreds of thousands’ worldwide — CNN

Pancreatitis — Johns Hopkins Medicine

Gastroparesis — Cleveland Clinic

Bowel Obstruction — Cleveland Clinic

Drug Safety-related Labeling Changes (SrLC): Ozempic — U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.