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Person with diabetes collecting blood sample with fingerstick for glucose monitoring after taking GLP-1 drugs

What are the GLP-1 drugs?

Written on November 28, 2022 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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In today’s world, many drug options are readily available to treat various diseases. One type of medication that has been on the market within the last few years is GLP-1 drugs. Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) drugs are also known as GLP-1 agonists, GLP-1 receptor agonists, incretin mimetics, or GLP-1 analogs [1,2]. GLP-1 drugs are medications used to treat conditions such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Benefits of GLP-1 drugs

It is estimated that about 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes, with up to 95% having type 2 [3]. GLP-1 drugs are an effective medication used for type 2 diabetes [2]. Type 2 diabetes has been referred to as "adult-onset diabetes" and is a condition with insulin resistance. It means that over time, even though your body produces insulin, the cells in your body don’t respond as well to it anymore. Eventually, this leads to diabetes with increasing blood sugar levels.

Not only are GLP-1 drugs used for type 2 diabetes, but they are also used to treat obesity. They have been shown to improve cardiovascular risks, reduce weight, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol [1,2].

How GLP-1 drugs work

You have a naturally occurring hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) produced in your gut. The GLP-1 hormones are stimulated by food intake, primarily carbohydrates from your diet. The GLP-1 hormones bind to and act on specific GLP-1 receptors in various tissues, including the pancreas [1,2]. After binding, the GLP-1 hormone can stimulate the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin, in turn, helps your body cells take up the sugar in the blood to ultimately lower the blood sugar level.

GLP-1 drugs work by mimicking the GLP-1 hormone in your body. When you take a GLP-1 medicine, it works in three main ways [1,2,4]:

  • Stimulates the release of insulin by the pancreas after eating.
  • Inhibits the release of another hormone called glucagon. Glucagon stimulates the liver to release sugars that have been stored in the bloodstream.
  • Slows the absorption of glucose into the blood by reducing the speed at which the stomach empties after eating, thus making you feel more satisfied or extending the sensation of feeling full after a meal.

These effects combine to keep your blood sugars down and support the other benefits of taking a GLP-1 drug.

Types of GLP-1 drugs

There are a few types of GLP-1 drugs. Below is a breakdown of the currently available forms of administration and examples.

Oral GLP-1 drug

Most GLP-1 drugs are injectables; however, semaglutide is an available oral option [2]. Semaglutide is administered orally once a week.

Short-acting injectable GLP-1 drugs

GLP-1 drugs dosed once or twice a day are short-acting and are administered via a subcutaneous injection. Short-acting GLP-1 drugs include [1,2]:

  • Exenatide (twice a day)
  • Liraglutide (daily)
  • Lixisenatide (daily)

Long-acting injectable GLP-1 drugs

Long-acting subcutaneous injections of GLP-1 drugs are administered once a week. Examples of GLP-1 long-acting medicines are [1,2]:

  • Dulaglutide (once a week)
  • Exenatide extended-release (once a week)
  • Semaglutide (once a week)

Adverse effects of GLP-1 drugs

Common side effects of GLP-1 drugs are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea [1,2,4]. You may also experience dizziness, mildly increased heart rate, infections, headaches, and upset stomach. It’s also important to note that GLP-1 drugs increase satiety; if you continue to eat while feeling full, it may lead to a wave of temporary, mild nausea. If you experience nausea, your healthcare provider should slowly increase your dosage. Since the majority of GLP-1 drugs are subcutaneous injections, there may be injection-site itchiness and redness could occur. However, this class of medications has a low risk of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar [1,2].

If you have a family history of medullary thyroid cancer, multiple endocrine neoplasias, or acute pancreatitis, you should avoid GLP-1 drugs [1,2,4]. If you have a severe allergic reaction to GLP-1 medications or are pregnant, you should also avoid taking this class of drugs. If you have severe gastrointestinal diseases like gastroparesis and inflammatory bowel disease, you should not take GLP-1 medicines.

Key takeaways for GLP-1 drugs

  • GLP-1 drugs are a class of medications used to treat type 2 diabetes and obesity.
  • They work in three main ways: stimulate insulin production, inhibit glucagon release, and slow insulin absorption by reducing the speed of stomach emptying.
  • The majority of GLP-1 drugs are injections, with only one currently available oral option.
  • The most common side effects of GLP-1 drugs include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • GLP-1 drugs should be avoided if a family history of medullary thyroid cancer or other endocrine neoplasia is present. In addition, it is not recommended if you have acute pancreatitis, severe allergic reaction to GLP-1 drugs, are pregnant, or have gastroparesis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Want to know more about GLP-1 drugs?

If you have type 2 diabetes, have obesity, or want to learn more about the benefits and side effects of GLP-1 drugs, consider talking to your healthcare provider to see if this class of medications is an option for you.

You can check in on your health and wellness with Everlywell. Everlywell offers easy telehealth to give you access to providers and works with a network of labs to get you access to various tests. Learn more about Everlywell and what is available for you.

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References

  1. Collins L, Costello RA. NCBI Bookshelf. Glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists. URL. Accessed November 27, 2022.
  2. Diabetes care. American Diabetes Association. URL. Published January 1, 2022. Accessed November 28, 2022.
  3. Type 2 diabetes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published December 16, 2021. Accessed November 28, 2022.
  4. Latif W, Lambrinos KJ, Rodriguez R. NCBI Bookshelf. Compare and contrast the glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists (GLP1RAs). URL. Accessed November 26, 2022.
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