Small Study Raises Hopes for Semaglutide Treatment of Alcoholism

3 min read

Nov. 28, 2023 – A small case study of people taking the popular weight loss drug semaglutide showed that they had a significant reduction in symptoms of addiction to alcohol.

Semaglutide is the active ingredient in the weight loss drug Wegovy and in the diabetes drug Ozempic.

The findings were published Monday in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and arise from what researchers call a “case series” study, which examines in detail the experiences of a small group of people but lacks the statistical power to draw conclusions that come from larger studies.

Alcohol use disorder typically involves problems controlling one’s alcohol intake, including being preoccupied with alcohol or continuing to use the drug even when it causes problems. People with alcohol use disorder often have to drink more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect of the drug, and they can experience withdrawal symptoms when they decrease their intake or stop drinking entirely.

“This research marks a significant step forward in our understanding of the potential therapeutic applications of semaglutide in the field of addiction medicine," said lead author Jesse Richards, DO, director of obesity medicine and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa School of Community Medicine, in a statement.

This case series included six people taking semaglutide for weight loss who all experienced a significant decrease in their alcohol use disorder symptoms over varying periods ranging from 1 to 9 months. The people all were patients at a medical weight loss and bariatric surgery clinic, and two took semaglutide to lose weight prior to planned bariatric surgery. Another person in the study had recently had bariatric surgery. One person reported entirely stopping binge drinking behavior while on semaglutide. Five of the six people in the study were women.  

The researchers from Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma said theirs is the first published paper showing evidence of using semaglutide to reduce alcohol use disorder symptoms in humans. Semaglutide works in ways that can impact the brain’s reward center, so its application to alcohol use disorder has drawn a lot of interest, and two larger studies are underway. Studies have already shown that rodents and monkeys reduce their alcohol intake when taking semaglutide, the authors noted.

Semaglutide’s benefits beyond treating diabetes and weight loss continue to emerge, including a recent study that showed it can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in some people. But the medicine also has drawn attention for its side effects, particularly gastrointestinal issues that result in many people stopping the treatment and some getting new health problems.

There are only three FDA-approved medications for alcohol use disorder, and less than 2% of people with the disorder use the medications, the authors noted. Other treatments for alcohol use disorder range from inpatient treatment for detox with medical management of withdrawal symptoms to group or individual therapy sessions where people learn how to modify their behavior and set goals, according to the Mayo Clinic.

More than 28 million U.S. adults had alcohol use disorder in 2021, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. That equals about 1 in 10 adults.

Because of the case study nature of their research, the authors wrote that it’s unclear whether the reduction in alcohol use disorder symptoms due to semaglutide would persist long-term. Previous studies have shown that people who lose weight while taking semaglutide usually regain much of that weight when they stop taking the medicine. The authors wrote that people seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder should use existing treatments until further research on semaglutide is available.