New risks reported by patients taking popular weight loss drugs, including hair loss, aspiration, and suicidal ideation

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published January 10, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists like Ozempic, Mounjaro, and Wegovy are booming in popularity, with nearly 2% of US adults being prescribed the drugs in 2023 alone. 

  • According to data reported between July and September 2023 to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), patients using GLP-1 drugs have experienced alopecia, aspiration, and suicidal thoughts. Experts also say that the drugs could increase cancer risk.

Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists like Ozempic, Mounjaro, and Wegovy have grown in popularity for diabetes management and weight loss, with the latter becoming especially trendy among celebrities and social media influencers.[][]

Ozempic, for example, was approved in 2017 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in adults with type 2 diabetes. It’s now often prescribed as an off-label drug to people who want to lose weight.[][]

GLP-1 drugs are fairly easy to access, with direct-to-consumer telehealth companies offering prescriptions to patients as part of weight loss programs. In fact, as of September 2023, nearly 2% of people in the US have been prescribed one of these medications, a 40-fold increase over the past 5 years. The high demand for and off-label use of GLP-1s has even led to dangerous shortages for people with type 2 diabetes.[][]

Experts, however, are worried about potential risks associated with these drugs. Side effects have also been reported. 

While GLPs have been deemed “miracle drugs,” what we don’t know about them may hurt us, according to a 2023 editorial in Diabetes Care, a journal published by the American Diabetes Association. “History has taught us that enthusiasm for new classes of drugs, heavily promoted by the pharmaceutical companies that market them, can obscure the caution that should be exercised when the long-term consequences are unknown,” the authors write.[] []

“Of perhaps greatest concern in the case of the GLP-1–based drugs, including GLP-1 agonists…is preliminary evidence to suggest the potential risks of asymptomatic chronic pancreatitis and, with time, pancreatic cancer,” they continue.

More so, data collected between July and September 2023 from the FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), patients taking GLP-1s have reported alopecia, aspiration, and suicidal thoughts.[] 

The FDA states that reported risks aren’t conclusive. “It means that FDA has identified a potential safety issue, but it does not mean that FDA has identified a causal relationship between the drug and the listed risk,” the FDA clarifies.[] 

Expert insights on GLP-1 drugs

These drugs do work for the right patient. According to Obesity, a real-world study of more than 2,400 patients who were overweight or obese and who had type 2 diabetes saw “modest weight loss” through 72 weeks after starting a GLP-1 agonist at standard glycemic control doses. They’ve also been shown to improve blood glucose control, beta-cell function, and insulin sensitivity.[][]

Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a dietitian and diabetes educator based in Washington, DC, says that she's worked with patients taking these sorts of drugs over the last 7 years. “[They] work by slowing down digestion, keeping us feeling fuller longer...and in the brain, [they] work by reducing signals of hunger and increasing signals of satiety. It’s a one-two punch,” she says. 

According to ​​Wajahat Mehal, PhD, MD, Director of the Yale Metabolic Health and Weight Loss Program at Yale Medicine, these drugs are “very helpful and result in health improvement for patients with obesity-related diseases,” but not everyone should be taking them. “There needs to be a clear health-related goal, in addition to any goal for a certain amount of weight loss. [There is] no point in taking them for a short-term goal and then stopping, as this will result in weight regain. Also, the long-term perspective is essential,” Dr. Mehal says. “These drugs are for people with diabetes mellitus or high BMI and should not be taken for recreational or cosmetic reasons,” he stresses. 

Phyllis Pobee, MD, a family physician specializing in weight loss medicine, says that her view on the widespread popularity of weight loss drugs “is multifaceted and deeply informed by both professional and personal perspectives.” 

Dr. Pobee believes that weight loss drugs can be effective tools for the right patient but that there can be risks, including hormonal imbalances that can have an effect on reproductive health, mood, and energy levels. Moreover, she worries about potential overreliance on these drugs. 

“There's a risk that individuals may view medication as a primary solution rather than a supplementary tool. Medications don't teach these vital lifestyle changes. When a patient discontinues the medication without having made these underlying changes, they often revert to old habits, leading to weight regain,” Dr. Pobee says. 

Thomason also notes that side effects are possible, especially when patients aren’t carefully monitored by a professional. She notes that GLP-1 drugs are being compounded with other supplements and vitamins in certain health and wellness clinics, and that because this isn’t regulated it’s hard to know what patients are getting. 

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter