Overconsumption of calories is associated with a condition that impacts millions of people, one that despite research showing strong links to environment, neurology, and genetics, is still notoriously attributed to a lack of self-control. If you guessed obesity, you’re not wrong, but there is another answer: alcohol use disorder, a condition that affects an estimated 16 million people in the US.
Now a rather unique new study reveals another side effect of some of the most popular medications for obesity: decreased alcohol consumption and cravings. The implications of these findings have huge potential.
Only three drugs have the green light from the FDA to treat alcohol use disorder, and research reveals they’re rarely prescribed, have low compliance, and low efficacy.
After extensive data analysis of posts on the social media site Reddit, a US team found that users of certain medications prescribed for type 2 diabetes and obesity reported a reduced desire to drink alcohol. “Participants reported drinking less, experienced fewer effects of alcohol when they did drink it, and decreased odds of binge drinking,” says Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, an appetitive neuroscientist at Virginia Tech.
DiFeliceantonio and colleagues used a large dataset of 68,250 posts and comments from across 313 ‘subreddits’, posted between 2009 and 2023. An extractor tool allowed them to find those that contained keywords associated with semaglutide or tirzepatide medications, such as brand names of the drugs.
After narrowing down the list of Reddit posts they analyzed 33,609 in total, from 14,595 unique accounts discussing the various side effects. They found 1,580 alcohol-related posts, by 962 individual accounts. A large majority of these 1,580 posts – 71.7 percent – mentioned reduced alcohol consumption, reduced cravings, and/or negative effects due to drinking.
Statistical analysis of the data showed that people who were given these medications had a significant decrease in both their alcohol use and cravings.
Semaglutide, prescribed as Wegovy, Ozempic, and Rybelsus, is a glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonist, a type of drug that mimics the actions of hormones released after eating to lower blood sugar and energy intake. Tirzepatide, prescribed as Mounjaro and Zepbound, is a synthetic version of the hormone glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide (GIP), which triggers the pancreas to secrete insulin. The drug activates both GIP and GLP-1 receptors to improve blood-sugar control.
“To our knowledge, there have been no research studies to investigate the effects of Tirzepatide on alcohol consumption,” the team writes in their published paper.
The research team also conducted a second, ‘real-world’ analysis, with a survey of the alcohol consumption of 153 alcohol-drinking adults with obesity. They were split into three groups based on whether they were prescribed semaglutide, tirzepatide, or neither as a control group.
In comparison to the non-medicated control group, people taking semaglutide or tirzepatide for diabetes or weight loss were found to have significantly lower alcohol intake, fewer drinks per drinking episode, and significantly lower likelihood of binge drinking.
“These findings add to a growing literature that these medications may curb dangerous drinking habits,” says behavioral pharmacologist Warren Bickel from Virginia Tech, a corresponding author on the paper.
The self-reported data is likely to involve some bias, and since the participants primarily consisted of white females around 40 years of age, there’s a need for further studies involving more diverse populations to explore possible differences based on sex, age, and race.
The researchers say randomized controlled clinical trials should be conducted to investigate GLP-1 agonists and GIP/GLP-1 drugs for the treatment of alcohol use disorder.
“Although evidence supporting the use of these medications for alcohol use disorder is growing, the field still needs to learn considerably more about them, particularly in identifying the underlying mechanisms,” Bickel says.
While obesity and alcohol use disorder may seem like separate issues, they share a common ground when it comes to the effects of certain medications. This unconventional approach of using medications prescribed for obesity to reduce alcohol consumption holds great promise in addressing alcohol use disorder, a condition that affects millions of individuals.
With further research and clinical trials, healthcare professionals may have a new tool at their disposal for combating alcohol use disorder and improving the lives of those impacted by this condition.
However, it’s essential to consider the limitations of the study, including potential biases in self-reported data and the need for diverse participant populations. Nevertheless, these findings open new avenues for investigation and offer hope for individuals seeking effective treatments for alcohol use disorder.