During the two months that Carey Yazeed took Ozempic, the drug worked as intended. Yazeed has type 2 diabetes and the weekly injection lowered her blood sugar. But it also brought side effects that she considered unbearable, including vomiting, fatigue, headaches and stomach cramps.
Five weeks after taking the medication, Yazeed said, she found herself unable to get off the bathroom floor.
“I was throwing up so much I didn’t have the energy to get up and I was basically laying in it,” she said. “I couldn’t even lift my head to throw up on the changing table. It was so bad.”
The serious effects Yazeed faced are uncommon, but people’s experiences of taking Ozempic and its sister drug, Wegovy, can vary widely – from significant weight loss and minimal discomfort at 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 forms of semaglutide. They are designed to mimic a hormone that signals to the brain when a person is full and promotes the release of insulin, a hormone that prevents blood sugar from getting too high. In turn, the drugs can lower blood sugar and suppress appetite.
They’ve exploded in popularity over the past year, in part due to social media attention and billionaires like Elon Musk touting the weight loss effects of the drugs.
Prescriptions for Ozempic tripled from 2021 to 2022, according to data from SingleCare, the discount prescription drug company, which has more than 5 million members. Last year, high demand and global supply constraints led to a shortage of medicines. The FDA reported a Wegovy shortage in March 2022, followed by a Ozempic deficiency in August.
Several people interviewed said the benefits they received from the drugs outweighed the side effects.
“It just feels lighter to walk around. My clothes fit so much better and more comfortably,” says Stacey Bollinger, an account director in Maryland, who reported losing 52 pounds since starting Wegovy. “Something as simple as bending down to tie my shoelaces is so much easier.”
Some people said they felt good on the drugs. But Yazeed and a few others described side effects that forced them to stop taking the drug, or question whether they could continue taking it long-term.
Obesity doctors who prescribe Ozempic and Wegovy said the drugs could change patients’ lives and health. The weight loss effects can enable patients to do activities they couldn’t do before, such as chasing after grandchildren or finding clothes that fit in mainstream stores. Semaglutide can also address health problems related to obesity and diabetes, such as an increased risk of heart attacks or strokes.
“By treating obesity, you are effectively treating more than 200 other obesity-related or weight-related diseases,” said Dr. Ania Jastreboff, associate professor of medicine at 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, and then Wegovy — the same drug, going up to a higher dosage — in 2021 for weight loss in obese or overweight adults with at 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 suppressed their hunger and reduced cravings for unhealthy foods. 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 to November (she took a break 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 revolves around food until you’re overweight until you go on a diet where you don’t have to think about it as much, like on Ozempic,” Harper said.
For the most part, she added, she responded well to the medication, although she sometimes belched when 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 has dropped to a point where she is no longer pre-diabetic.
A study of more than 1,000 people with type 2 diabetes found semaglutide to be more effective than insulin at lowering blood sugar. The participants had not seen any 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 given a placebo.
Dr. C. Nicole Swiner, a family physician in Durham, North Carolina, said she started using Wegovy in 2021 after seeing how much it helped her patients. She has since lost 30 pounds, she said.
“Because I’m not hungry, I can actually stop and make a smarter decision [rather] then, ‘Oh my God, I’m hungry. Let me get what’s in the office kitchen, which is mostly junk,” Swiner said.
On Wegovy, she added, she generally eats less and has swapped sweet treats like cookies or muffins for healthier alternatives like yogurt or fruit.
For Yazeed, weight loss wasn’t the reason she went on Ozempic, nor was it a goal. But the drug, she said, forced herself to eat and often couldn’t tolerate anything but 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 gain weight again
Like many medications, the effects of semaglutide stop when patients go off it, so some people gain weight again. Experts said they consider Ozempic and Wegovy to be lifelong drugs.
“Data from our clinical trials for Wegovy showed that, not unexpectedly, patients experience weight gain once they stop taking the medication,” Novo Nordisk told NBC News in a statement.
“This supports the belief that obesity is a chronic disease requiring long-term treatment, much like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, for which most patients remain on long-term therapy,” the company added.
Ebony Wiggins, who has type 2 diabetes, said she’s gained about 15 pounds from the 25 she lost last year while taking Ozempic.
Artemis Bayandor, who lives in Naperville, Illinois, said she weighs more now than she did when she took Wegovy: Within a month of going off the medication, she gained back the 15 pounds she lost on the drug, she said, plus another 10 pounds. the next six months.
“The first week I was fine, and the second week I went back to all the cravings, but worse,” Bayandor said.
Side effects put some people off the drugs
Courtney Hamilton didn’t make it past a month on Ozempic, which her doctor prescribed off-label because Hamilton has type 1 diabetes, not type 2.
Her nausea got so bad she could barely eat, Hamilton said, and the foods she could tolerate weren’t particularly healthy.
“Ironically, it made me stick to very starchy, high-carb foods like potatoes because they’re very bland. I’ve eaten a lot of those and a lot of plain toast,” she said.
People usually start with a low dose of Ozempic or Wegovy and then increase it to reduce side effects. Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, said some serious effects could result from increasing that dosage too quickly.
“If the patient says, ‘Oh God, I’m sick. I can’t even go to work, I’ve been throwing up all day,’ then the dose is probably just not the right dose for them,” Stanford said.
In clinical trials, 73% of adults taking the highest dose of Wegovy reported gastrointestinal problems. Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation and abdominal pain are most common. Some people have reported more serious, albeit rare, side effects such as pancreatitis and kidney failure.
Novo Nordisk said patients who experience nausea as a side effect should contact their healthcare provider for advice on 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 make their symptoms worse. Most side effects occur as people increase their dosage and disappear once they reach the maintenance phase, she added.
Megan Cornelius, who has been taking Ozempic off-label for some years for type 1 diabetes, said she felt nauseous and fatigued at first, but the effects faded over time.
“As long as I can keep taking it, I probably will,” Cornelius said.
For Eric Joiner Jr., a former type 2 diabetic, Ozempic has done nothing but the intended effect: improve his kidney function – an off-label application of the drug. Joiner developed chronic kidney disease as a by-product of his diabetes.
He hasn’t experienced any side effects or weight loss from Ozempic, he said, but he acknowledges that this isn’t true for everyone.
“Ultimately it’s a very personal thing,” he said. “Your biology is different from mine.”