Semaglutide and alcohol: Could a diabetes drug reduce drinking?

  • Alcohol use disorder is a condition that can lead to physical and psychological damage. There are several strategies to help people who struggle with the misuse of alcohol.
  • Researchers are still seeking the best way to help people with alcohol use disorder, including the potential of medications to curb alcohol consumption.
  • A​ study in rats and mice found that a drug typically used in the treatment of diabetes may help curb alcohol consumption and reduce relapse-drinking behaviors.

Research is ongoing about the dangers of drinking too much alcohol too frequently. Some people may struggle to stop drinking even if their drinking habits cause harm. Experts want to understand what medications may help people minimize their alcohol consumption.

A​ study published in eBioMedicine found that the diabetes drug semaglutide — sold under brand names such as Ozempic, Rybelsus, and Wegovy — effectively decreased alcohol consumption in rats.

The study opens the door for further research into how this medication could help people with alcohol use disorder.

Using a diabetes drug to lower alcohol use

T​his particular study looked at how semaglutide influenced drinking habits. Semaglutide is a medication that helps with the pancreas’ production of insulin.

Doctors typically prescribe it to help some people with type 2 diabetes. However, recent research has suggested the drug’s potential may be more diverse than just helping with diabetes treatment.

Researchers used mice and rats in their data collection. Researchers investigated how semaglutide affected the rats’ alcohol consumption.

To start, they gave alcohol to a group of rats for about 9 weeks to establish a drinking habit. They did this by providing alcohol 3 days per week.

Then, when researchers gave the rats semaglutide, they measured its effects on alcohol consumption. Rats that had received the medication exhibited reductions in their alcohol consumption.

Study author Prof. Elisabet Jerlhag, from the Department of Pharmacology at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, The Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, explained to Medical News Today:

“​We found that semaglutide, given once or at several occasions, reduces alcohol intake in male and female rats. This reduction is over half of what they drank before. All rats have consumed alcohol for over 10 weeks before treatment, indicating that they are “addicted” to alcohol (as much as an animal can be).”

Impact on alcohol use after abstinence

Researchers further tested how semaglutide impacted drinking after a “sobriety” period. They deprived the rats of alcohol for 9 days and then gave them semaglutide.

The researchers then looked at how the rats responded to the reintroduction of alcohol to see if they would return to their drinking baseline.

They found that semaglutide helped prevent relapse drinking.

Prof. Jerlhag explained: “We found that semaglutide prevents relapse drinking in both sexes. Relapse drinking is a huge problem in patients with AUD [alcohol use disorder]. They abstain from alcohol, a white period, and then they start drinking more once they start. This is also seen in rodents. This is prevented by semaglutide.”

The male and female rats also experienced weight loss, which is a common effect of semaglutide.

Further research, including the use of male mice, looked at more of the underlying mechanisms that may be involved in this phenomenon, even though the mice were not used in the alcohol intake experiments that the rats were in.

Researchers note that, based on previous research, the effect of semaglutide would likely be similar among male mice.

Prof. Jerlhag explained more about the potential underlying mechanisms that the study found, noting: “We found that semaglutide prevents the reward from alcohol, and this might be the mechanism contributing to the reduced alcohol intake observed. We [also] found that semaglutide acts via a reward area [in the brain] called nucleus accumbens.”

Study limitations and continued research

The study’s main limitation is that it used rats and mice. Animal studies provide valuable information, but this often means more research is required before it applies to humans.

Researchers also did not include female mice in the study, further limiting the data. The effect of semaglutide on drinking habits and drinking relapse also was not tested in the male mice.

The findings suggest that semaglutide works by decreasing the sense of reward typically experienced with alcohol consumption. There is still the possibility that other factors may have contributed to the results.

Further research may be warranted to better understand the underlying factors and how response differs between males and females.

Prof. Jerlhag noted that researchers could conduct “[c]linical studies in patients with AUD [alcohol use disorder], preferably those who are overweight.”

“That would show that it can be used clinically,” she told us. “Studies on other addictive drugs are needed. Is the effect similar?”

Ultimately, the data show promise of another strategy for people struggling with alcohol use disorder and even the use of other addictive substances.

Psychiatrist Dr. Josh Lichtman, medical director at Neuro Wellness Spa, not involved in the study, commented on the research for MNT.

D​r. Lichtman was enthusiastic about what the results could mean for many groups:

“The findings of this study are potentially very promising when it comes to patient care. Semaglutide could be a potential treatment option for patients with alcohol use disorders. It can reduce alcohol consumption, prevent relapse-like drinking during alcohol withdrawal, and attenuate alcohol-related reward responses. The drug’s ability to decrease intake and preference for rewarding foods suggests a broader suppressive effect on motivation for rewards, which may be beneficial for individuals with addictive behaviors beyond alcohol.”

The impact of alcohol use disorder

Drinking alcohol is common in many cultures and countries. Despite its popularity, drinking too much alcohol presents certain dangers to health.

When people drink too much alcohol, it can damage organs in the body. For example, high alcohol consumption can contribute to liver and heart problems. It can also increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

W​hen people have alcohol use disorder, it means they struggle to quit or reduce the amount of alcohol they are drinking. Help for alcohol use disorder can involve a combination of several strategies and help from specialists.

Dr. Lichtman explained to MNT that it “continues to be a major problem” and that “[d]​epending on the severity, patients with severe alcohol use disorders often need to be medically detoxed, as alcohol withdrawal is a potentially deadly condition.”

“Focused and intensive outpatient treatment programs and residential treatment programs can be extremely helpful for patients who are ready and motivated to get clean. Sober living programs can also be very helpful, and community support groups like AA, Dharma Recovery, Refuge Recovery, and Smart Recovery, can be very helpful as well,” he advised.

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