Understanding How Semaglutide Works: A Comprehensive Review

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Dr. Khoshaba

June 26, 2023

In the battle against diabetes mellitus, a global health threat, semaglutide has emerged as a potent weapon.  Semaglutide has demonstrated considerable efficacy in managing type 2 diabetes and chronic weight management, belonging to the class of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists

Its effectiveness is attributed to its unique mechanism of action, which imitates the functions of the endogenous GLP-1 hormone, an incretin hormone that plays an instrumental role in regulating glucose metabolism. However, understanding how semaglutide works requires delving deep into the intricate world of human metabolism, hormonal interaction, and the pathophysiology of diabetes. 

This comprehensive review endeavors to unravel the complexities of semaglutide's mechanism of action, providing an insight that might better equip healthcare professionals in their quest to manage diabetes and its associated complications.

Semaglutide: An Overview

What is semaglutide?

Semaglutide stands out as an innovative addition to the therapeutic arsenal for the management of type 2 diabetes mellitus and obesity. 

Developed by Novo Nordisk, semaglutide belongs to a class of drugs known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, which mimic the action of the endogenous GLP-1 hormone. Semaglutide has demonstrated superior efficacy in glycemic control and weight loss compared to many other anti-diabetic drugs, earning it considerable recognition in the medical community.
Approved by the FDA in 2017 for treating type 2 diabetes and extended in 2020 for chronic weight management, semaglutide is a long-acting medication typically administered once weekly. The drug is available in both injectable form and as an oral tablet, making it more convenient and versatile for different patient need

Semaglutide's potency stems from its structural similarity to the human GLP-1 hormone but with significant modifications that make it resistant to degradation by the enzyme dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4). This feature enables semaglutide to have a prolonged action and robust efficacy.

The role of semaglutide has expanded beyond just glycemic control in diabetes. Its impressive effects on weight reduction and potential cardiovascular benefits have drawn attention, with ongoing studies exploring its potential in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and Alzheimer's disease.

Semaglutide heralds significant advantages, and understanding its mechanism of action is crucial for optimal clinical utilization.

Mechanism of Action

The basis of semaglutide's functionality lies in its resemblance to the native human GLP-1 hormone. GLP-1 is a naturally occurring incretin hormone that helps to regulate glucose levels by stimulating insulin secretion and suppressing glucagon release when blood glucose levels are high. However, native GLP-1 is rapidly degraded in the body by an enzyme called dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4), which limits its therapeutic use.

Semaglutide, like other GLP-1 receptor agonists, mimics the actions of GLP-1 but is resistant to DPP-4 degradation due to a modification in its structure. This modification binds semaglutide strongly to the GLP-1 receptor, leading to prolonged activity.

The mechanism of semaglutide can be elaborated under the following actions:

Glucose-dependent Insulin Secretion: 

By binding to GLP-1 receptors on beta cells in the pancreas, semaglutide stimulates insulin release in response to high glucose levels. This helps in lowering post-meal blood sugar levels.

Inhibition of Glucagon Secretion

Semaglutide inhibits glucagon, a hormone that increases blood glucose levels by stimulating the liver to convert stored glycogen into glucose. Reducing glucagon levels leads to a decrease in hepatic glucose output, which helps control blood glucose levels.

Delay of Gastric Emptying

Semaglutide slows gastric emptying, reducing glucose absorption rate in the bloodstream post meals. This action helps control post-meal glucose spikes.

Appetite Suppression

GLP-1 receptor agonists, including semaglutide, act on the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates appetite. By mimicking the action of GLP-1, semaglutide promotes feelings of satiety, which can help in weight management.

Understanding the Cardiovascular Benefits of Semaglutide

Type 2 diabetes mellitus is multifaceted, often coupled with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure, myocardial infarction, and stroke. Therefore, managing type 2 diabetes extends beyond glycemic control, making cardiovascular safety a crucial consideration when selecting an anti-diabetic agent. 

Semaglutide, a glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonist, has emerged as a powerful tool for its robust glycemic control and potential cardiovascular benefits.

Semaglutide and Cardiovascular Safety

The cardiovascular safety of semaglutide has been studied extensively, most notably in the SUSTAIN-6 trial (Trial to Evaluate Cardiovascular and Other Long-term Outcomes with Semaglutide in Subjects with Type 2 Diabetes). In this trial, over 3,000 patients with type 2 diabetes and established cardiovascular disease or at high cardiovascular risk were randomized to receive either semaglutide or a placebo.

The results demonstrated that semaglutide met the standard for non-inferiority to placebo for cardiovascular safety. There was also a significant 26% relative risk reduction in the primary composite outcome (the first occurrence of cardiovascular death, nonfatal myocardial infarction, or nonfatal stroke) in the semaglutide group compared to the placebo group.

Potential Mechanisms Behind the Cardiovascular Benefits

While the exact mechanisms through which semaglutide exerts its cardiovascular benefits are not fully understood, several theories have been proposed:

  • Improved Glycemic Control: Semaglutide, a GLP-1 receptor agonist, substantially reduces HbA1c levels associated with reduced cardiovascular risk.
  • Weight Reduction: Semaglutide has demonstrated significant effects on weight loss. Obesity is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease; weight reduction can decrease cardiovascular risk.
  • Blood Pressure Reduction: Clinical trials have shown modest reductions in systolic blood pressure with semaglutide use, which can contribute to overall cardiovascular risk reduction.
  • Lipid Metabolism: Semaglutide has been associated with favorable lipid profile changes, including reduced LDL ("bad") cholesterol.
  • Anti-inflammatory Effects: Inflammation plays a crucial role in atherogenesis, and GLP-1 receptor agonists have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties, which may contribute to their cardiovascular benefits.

The positive impact of semaglutide on cardiovascular outcomes has created a new paradigm in treating type 2 diabetes, where the cardiovascular benefit is now a key consideration in selecting an antidiabetic therapy. More studies are ongoing to understand further the full extent of semaglutide's cardiovascular benefits and potential uses in other cardiovascular-risk populations.

Overall, the cardiovascular benefits of semaglutide extend its role from merely an antidiabetic agent to a potent cardiovascular risk modifier, offering patients with type 2 diabetes a comprehensive treatment strategy that addresses both their glycemic and cardiovascular needs.

Potential Side Effects and Safety Concerns of Semaglutide

Potential side effects of semaglutide, understanding how semaglutide works

Despite its potential, like any medication, semaglutide can cause side effects. Understanding these side effects, their implications, and strategies to manage them can greatly enhance patient comfort and compliance.

Common Side Effects

The most common side effects of semaglutide are gastrointestinal in nature. These include:

  1. Nausea: The most frequent side effect, reported in up to 20% of patients in some studies. It's generally mild and tends to lessen over time as the body adjusts to the medication.
  2. Vomiting: Though less common than nausea, it can occur in some patients, particularly when starting the medication or when the dosage is increased.
  3. Diarrhea: This is also a relatively common side effect, but it's usually mild and improves over time.
  4. Constipation: Some patients may experience constipation while on semaglutide, which is less common than diarrhea.
  5. Abdominal pain: Some users might experience abdominal discomfort or pain.

It's important to note that the gastrointestinal side effects of semaglutide can often be minimized by starting at a low dose and gradually increasing it over time. These side effects also tend to decrease with continued use of the drug.

Less Common Side Effects

Other less common side effects include:

  1. Decreased appetite: While this is actually an advantage for individuals using semaglutide for weight management, it might be concerning in some circumstances.
  2. Fatigue: Some patients report feelings of tiredness or low energy while on semaglutide.
  3. Dizziness: This is typically mild and transient.
  4. Pancreatitis: This rare but serious side effect can lead to severe abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  5. Injection site reactions: These can range from mild symptoms, like minor pain or redness, to more serious symptoms, such as blistering, ulceration, or severe inflammation. 

Safety Concerns and Special Precautions

While semaglutide is generally considered safe, there are some precautions to keep in mind.

  1. Hypoglycemia: In patients using other antidiabetic medications, especially insulin or sulfonylureas, there's a risk of low blood sugar. It's crucial to monitor blood sugar levels and adjust other diabetes medications as necessary.
  2. Pancreatitis: While the risk of developing pancreatitis is rare, patients should be advised to contact their healthcare provider if they experience severe stomach pain that does not go away, as it could be a symptom of pancreatitis.
  3. Retinopathy complications: During the first few months of treatment, individuals with a history of diabetic retinopathy should be closely monitored, as rapid changes in blood glucose levels may cause temporary worsening of this condition.
  4. Renal impairment: Semaglutide is generally safe for individuals with kidney disease. However, due to its potential to cause nausea and vomiting, it may indirectly lead to dehydration and exacerbate kidney disease.
  5. Allergic reactions: Allergic reactions to semaglutide are rare but can occur. Patients should be instructed to seek immediate medical attention if they have a rash, itching, swelling, severe dizziness, or difficulty breathing.
Pro Tip:While semaglutide has proven effective in managing type 2 diabetes and obesity, patients and healthcare providers should be aware of potential side effects and safety concerns. Most side effects are mild and transient, but awareness allows timely intervention and improves patient comfort and treatment adherence. 

Clinical Implications and Future Directions

The efficacy of semaglutide in controlling blood glucose levels and facilitating weight loss, along with the cardiovascular benefits demonstrated in the SUSTAIN-6 and PIONEER-6 trials, has expanded its clinical utility, potentially making it a first-line choice for many patients.

The research is ongoing to explore other potential uses of semaglutide. Based on promising preliminary results, trials have been initiated to study its effects on liver function, specifically in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)

Additionally, preclinical studies have shown the beneficial effects of semaglutide on cognition, sparking interest in its potential role in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease. Another emerging area of interest is examining the effectiveness of semaglutide in managing type 1 diabetes.
In summary, semaglutide has demonstrated remarkable therapeutic potential for current clinical challenges and continues to offer hope for future medical advances, promising further to shape the treatment of metabolic and possibly neurological disorde

understanding how semaglutide works

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Dr. Linda Khoshaba is the Leading Integrative Health and Hormone Doctor in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has extensive experience working in the field as a Hormone Specialist and Natural Endocrinologist.

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