Study Suggests Mind-Body Benefits of Weight Loss Drugs

3 min read

Feb. 8, 2024 – People taking a popular type of drug for weight loss or to manage diabetes have a lower likelihood of being newly diagnosed with depression or anxiety, according to an analysis of millions of people’s health records.

The findings were published this week by researchers from the electronic health record company Epic. Researchers looked for new diagnoses of depression or anxiety among people who started taking drugs from a class called GLP-1 agonists that can help manage blood sugar or treat obesity by mimicking hormone levels in the body that can affect appetite and blood sugar. Many people who take the drugs experience significant weight loss.

The researchers found that people with diabetes who started taking most versions of GLP-1 agonists were between 11% and 65% less likely to be newly diagnosed with depression than people with diabetes who didn’t take one of the drugs. The greatest reduction in likelihood of a new depression diagnosis was observed among people taking tirzepatide, which is sold under the brand names Mounjaro and Zepbound. 

A reduced likelihood of being diagnosed with anxiety was also observed among people with diabetes after they started taking a GLP-1 agonist, compared to people with diabetes who didn’t take one of the drugs. Again, tirzepatide showed the greatest reduction in odds, with people taking that drug experiencing a 60% reduced likelihood of being newly diagnosed with anxiety.

Similar reductions in the likelihood of new depression or anxiety diagnoses were observed among people who didn’t have diabetes but were taking GLP-1 agonists, such as for weight loss.

The mind-body connection has been well established by research.

“Thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can affect how healthy your body is,” according to a summary from the CDC about the connection between diabetes and depression. “Untreated mental health issues can make diabetes worse, and problems with diabetes can make mental health issues worse. But fortunately if one gets better, the other tends to get better, too.”

This latest analysis included the drugs dulaglutide, exenatide, liraglutide, semaglutide, and tirzepatide. The medicines, used for weight loss or to manage diabetes, include the brand names Byetta, Ozempic, Mounjaro, Trulicity, Wegovy, and Zepbound. The researchers also looked for links between depression or anxiety diagnoses among people taking liraglutide (sold under brand names Saxenda and Victoza), but found that there was little to no change in the likelihood of being diagnosed with depression or anxiety after starting liraglutide.

The findings are timely as regulators in the U.S. and Europe are investigating reports of suicidal thoughts among people using the drugs. In January, the FDA announced that a preliminary investigation showed no increased risk of suicidal thoughts or actions, but the agency could not “definitively rule out that a small risk may exist; therefore, FDA is continuing to look into this issue.”

This latest analysis from Epic Research only looked at health records, was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, nor could it establish a definitive role the medications may have played in whether or not someone was diagnosed with depression or anxiety. It’s unknown whether people in the study had symptoms of depression or anxiety before starting the medications.

“These results show that these medications may serve a dual purpose for patients, but we do not understand them well enough yet to say these medications should be given as a treatment for anxiety or depression outside of diabetes or weight management,” Kersten Bartelt, a researcher employed by Epic, told ABC News.