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For the two months Carey Yazeed took Ozempic, the drug worked as intended. Yazeed has type 2 diabetes, and the weekly injection lowered her blood sugar levels. But it also brought side effects she considered unbearable, including vomiting, fatigue, headaches and stomach cramps.
Five weeks into taking the medication, Yazeed said, she found herself unable to move off the bathroom floor.
“I had vomited so much that I didn’t have the energy to get up and I was basically lying in it,” she said. “I couldn’t even raise my head to vomit in the commode. It was so bad.”
The severe effects Yazeed faced aren’t common, but people’s experiences taking Ozempic and its sister drug, Wegovy, can vary widely — from substantial weight loss and minimal discomfort on one end of the spectrum to extreme effects on the other.
NBC News spoke to 10 people about their experiences taking these blockbuster drugs, both of which are forms of semaglutide. They’re designed to mimic a hormone that signals to the brain when a person is full and promotes the release of insulin, a hormone that stops blood sugar from getting too high. In turn, the medications can lower blood sugar levels and suppress appetites.
They have soared in popularity over the last year, in part from social media attention and billionaires like Elon Musk touting the drugs’ weight loss effects.
Prescriptions for Ozempic tripled from 2021 to 2022, according to data from the prescription drug discount company SingleCare, which has more than 5 million members. Last year, high demand and global supply constraints gave rise to shortages of the medications. The FDA reported a Wegovy shortage in March 2022, followed by an Ozempic shortage in August.
Several people interviewed said the benefits they got from the drugs outweighed the side effects.
“It just feels lighter moving around. My clothes fit so much better and more comfortably,” said Stacey Bollinger, an account director in Maryland, who reported losing 52 pounds since starting Wegovy. “Something as simple as bending over to tie my shoe is so much easier.”
Some people said they felt fine on the medications. But Yazeed and a couple of others described side effects that forced them to stop taking the drugs or question whether they could stay on them long term.
Obesity medicine experts who prescribe Ozempic and Wegovy said the drugs can transform patients’ lives and health. The weight loss effects can enable patients to do activities they couldn’t do previously, like chase after grandchildren or find clothes that fit at mainstream stores. Semaglutide can also address health issues linked to obesity and diabetes, such as an elevated risk of heart attacks or stroke.
“By treating obesity, you’re effectively potentially treating over 200 other obesity-related or weight-related diseases,” said Dr. Ania Jastreboff, an associate professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine. Jastreboff serves on the scientific advisory board of Novo Nordisk, which makes Ozempic and Wegovy.
Accounts of dramatic weight loss
The Food and Drug Administration approved Ozempic for people with type 2 diabetes in 2017, then Wegovy — the same drug, which goes up to higher dosage — in 2021 for weight loss in adults with obesity or those who are overweight and have least one weight-related health condition, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. Ozempic is not approved for weight loss, but doctors sometimes prescribe it off-label for that purpose.
Most people who took Ozempic or Wegovy said it curbed their hunger and reduced cravings for unhealthy food. Bollinger and Randi Lee Harper, a software developer in the Seattle area, each reported losing more than 50 pounds.
Harper took Ozempic off-label for weight loss from May until November (she paused while moving to Washington state but plans to start again). She said she still enjoyed her favorite foods — like truffle mac n’ cheese and Sour Patch Kids candy — but her portions were smaller.
“You don’t realize how much your life is centered around food when you’re overweight until you’re on a diet that just lets you not think about it so much, like on Ozempic,” Harper said.
For the most part, she added, she reacted well to the medication, though sometimes she burped if she ate too much — a fairly common side effect.
As for Bollinger, she said that in addition to her weight loss, her average blood sugar levels have dropped to a point where she’s no longer pre-diabetic.
A study of more than 1,000 people with type 2 diabetes found that semaglutide was more effective than insulin at lowering blood sugar. The participants had not seen results from other antidiabetic drugs, which they continued to take during the trial. In another study of nearly 2,000 overweight or obese adults without diabetes, people taking semaglutide lost an average of 34 pounds in less than 16 weeks, compared to 6 pounds among those receiving a placebo.
Dr. C. Nicole Swiner, a family medicine doctor in Durham, North Carolina, said she started taking Wegovy in 2021 after seeing how much it helped her patients. She has lost 30 pounds since then, she said.
“Because I’m not starving, I can actually stop and make a smarter decision [rather] than, ‘Oh my God, I’m ravenous. Let me grab whatever’s in the office kitchen,’ which is usually junk,” Swiner said.
On Wegovy, she added, she eats less overall and has swapped sugary treats like cookies or muffins for healthier alternatives like yogurt or fruit.
For Yazeed, weight loss was not the reason she went on Ozempic, nor was it a goal. But on the drug, she said, she had to force herself to eat and often couldn’t stomach anything beyond a protein shake in the morning. On a good day, she might also tolerate some chicken broth.
She lost 10 pounds in two months, going from a size 12 to an 8 or 10.
Patients who stop taking the drugs often regain weight
Like many drugs, the effects of semaglutide stop when patients go off of it, so some people regain weight. Experts said they consider Ozempic and Wegovy to be lifelong medications.
“Data from our clinical trials for Wegovy showed that, not unexpectedly, patients experience weight regain once they stop taking the medication,” Novo Nordisk told NBC News in a statement.
“This supports the belief that obesity is a chronic disease that requires long-term management, much like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, for which most patients remain on therapy long term,” the company added.
Ebony Wiggins, who has type 2 diabetes, said she has gained back about 15 pounds of the 25 she lost last year while taking Ozempic.
Artemis Bayandor, who lives in Naperville, Illinois, said she weighs more now than when she took Wegovy: Within one month of stopping the medication, she gained back the 15 pounds she had lost on the drug, she said, plus an extra 10 over the next six months.
“For the first week I was OK, and for the second week I went right back to all of the cravings, but worse,” Bayandor said.
Side effects put some people off the medications
Courtney Hamilton didn’t make it more than a month on Ozempic, which her doctor prescribed off-label because Hamilton has type 1 diabetes, not type 2.
Her nausea got so bad that she could barely eat, Hamilton said, and the foods she could tolerate weren’t particularly healthy.
“Ironically, it made me stick to very starchy, carby foods like potatoes because they’re very bland. I ate a lot of that and a lot of plain toast,” she said.
People typically start with a low dose of Ozempic or Wegovy, then ramp up to reduce side effects. Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, said some severe effects may be the result of raising that dosage too quickly.
“If the patient’s saying, ‘Oh gosh, I’m sick. I can’t even go to work, I’m vomiting all day,’ it’s probably the dose is just not an appropriate dose for them,” Stanford said.
In clinical trials, 73% of adults taking the highest dose of Wegovy reported gastrointestinal issues. Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation and stomach pain are most common. Some people have reported more serious, albeit rare, side effects like pancreatitis and kidney failure.
Novo Nordisk said patients experiencing nausea as a side effect should contact their health care provider for guidance about ways to manage it.
Jastreboff said she encourages her patients to consume smaller, more frequent meals, not eat past the point of fullness, and monitor which foods exacerbate their symptoms. Most side effects occur as people are increasing their dosage, then subside once they reach the maintenance phase, she added.
Megan Cornelius, who has been taking Ozempic off-label for type 1 diabetes for several years, said she was nauseous and fatigued at first but those effects faded over time.
“As long as I can continue to take it, I probably will,” Cornelius said.
For Eric Joiner Jr., a former type 2 diabetic, Ozempic hasn’t done anything beyond its intended effect: improve his kidney function — an off-label application of the drug. Joiner developed chronic kidney disease as a byproduct of his diabetes.
He hasn’t experienced side effects or weight loss from Ozempic, he said, but he recognizes that isn’t true for everyone.
“At the end of the day, it’s a very personal thing,” he said. “Your biology is different than mine.”