Whether it’s media speculation about celebrity weight loss or viral TikTok content promoting before-and-after body transformations – you’ve probably heard about semaglutide (the brand name is Ozempic) and its benefits for weight loss. The headline-making medication was actually developed to manage type-2 diabetes but was later found to result in substantial and sustained weight loss alongside exercise and healthy eating. Given two-thirds of Australians are overweight or obese, with significant impacts on their health, the concept of an effective weight loss medication is understandably compelling. However, off-label use has led to widespread shortages, meaning those who use the drug to treat diabetes or would benefit most from its weight loss effects, are going without. That’s why it’s important to know what exactly Ozempic is, what it should be used for and whether it’s right for you.
What is Ozempic?
We’ve used the term Ozempic because it’s what most people are familiar with, but Ozempic is a brand of the medicine semaglutide. Semaglutide belongs to a class of medications called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists. These copy the action of GLP-1 — a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pancreas that helps to release the right amount of insulin when blood sugar levels are high.
A weekly injection of semaglutide, along with diet and exercise, improves blood sugar in adults with type-2 diabetes. In people with heart disease, it reduces the risk of stroke, heart attack or death.
Semaglutide can reduce your appetite and result in weight loss, but this is not what it was designed and originally approved for.
The effects of the medication only last as long as you take it. One year after stopping semaglutide, study participants regained two-thirds of the weight they’d lost.
Is Ozempic available in Australia?
Ozempic and other GLP-1 receptor agonists are approved for use in Australia when prescribed by a doctor, subject to certain conditions. These drugs are not widely available at the moment. The pharmaceutical company that produces semaglutide has recently advised that supply will be limited throughout 2024 due to a global shortage. Prescribers have been advised to not start new patients on Ozempic unless there’s no other option, and patients already on it should consider changing to an alternative.
Other GLP-1 receptor agonists registered with Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) include sulaglutide (sold as Trulicity), liraglutide (sold as Saxenda) and Tiezepatide (sold as Mounjaro), but only Ozempic is subsidised on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
If you’re shopping for semaglutide products online, these have not been checked for safety, quality or effectiveness by the TGA, and buying prescription medicines online without a valid prescription is illegal.
What should Ozempic be used for?
Ozempic is primarily prescribed for people with type 2 diabetes who struggle to maintain optimal blood sugar levels through lifestyle changes or other medications. Despite the uptake of Ozempic as a tool for obesity management, global medical bodies have advised that it should be prescribed first and foremost as a diabetes management option. Ozempic is not approved for weight loss in Australia.
“Ozempic and other semaglutides… are not specifically weight-loss drugs,” says Accredited Practising Dietitian Susie Burrell. “Rather, they are drugs that target glucose dysfunction and, as such, should be prescribed by a GP or endocrinologist. They are medications that need to be rightly prescribed by a doctor who is experienced in the management of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.”
Wegovy and Saxenda have been approved by the TGA for weight management in people with obesity or those considered overweight with at least one weight-related comorbidity, however, these drugs are not yet available here.
Downsides, risks and side effects of Ozempic
As with any medication, Ozempic comes with potential downsides, risks and side effects. Commonly reported side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain, with warnings about possible changes to vision, kidney failure and gallbladder issues. According to manufacturers, these symptoms usually subside as the body adjusts to the medication after four weeks, however, continued usage still carries risk.
Ozempic may also interact with certain medications or pre-existing conditions. That's why it’s particularly important to have a thorough consultation with a doctor to determine whether it’s right for you. Ozempic should not be used by people under 18 years old, and/or people who have:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Kidney failure
- A family history of medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC)
- Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia syndrome type 2 (MEN 2)
Effects of Ozempic specific to men
While the benefits and risks of Ozempic extend to both men and women, men may have a reduced risk of experiencing the adverse gastrointestinal side effects of semaglutide.
Over one-third of type 2 diabetes in Australian men is linked to obesity, and Ozempic's ability to promote weight loss may contribute to better overall health and improved diabetes management. The associated weight loss benefits for those with type 2 diabetes include decreased blood pressure, lipid levels and waist circumference – all significant markers of decreased mortality rates.
Ozempic may not be suitable for everyone, and the decision to prescribe it should be based on a thorough assessment of your health and medical history. Chat to your doctor for more information.