What Are GLP-1 Medicines & How Do They Work?
Type 2 diabetes affects the entire body. Normally, your body turns food into sugar, which results in high blood sugar. Then your body releases a hormone called GLP-1 to help the pancreas produce insulin and bring blood sugars back down.
Over time, the cells in the pancreas can wear out and produce less insulin and/or your body’s GLP-1 may stop working, both leading to high blood sugars. Your doctor may then prescribe one or more types of medicine to help you manage your blood sugar levels.
How GLP-1 medications can help your diabetes
You may be asked to take a GLP-1 medicine. These medications are man-made versions of the hormone that’s produced by your intestines. When you eat, your intestines release GLP-1 to help control your blood sugar. GLP-1 medicines are designed to copy the hormone’s effects by doing the following:
- Making your pancreas release insulin after you eat. This helps keep your blood sugar levels from rising too high.
- Making the pancreas release less "glucagon". This hormone causes the liver to release sugar into your bloodstream.
- Keeping food in your stomach longer, which helps keep your blood sugar levels from getting too high too quickly.
- Helps keep the liver from releasing too much sugar into your blood.
GLP-1 medicines may also give you the following extra benefits:
Unlike some diabetes medications, they don’t cause your blood sugar to drop too low (hypoglycemia). When this happens, it can cause symptoms such as shakiness and dizziness. In severe cases, it can cause coma or even death.
They help keep food in your stomach longer, so they may help you feel full for longer periods of time. As a result, they can help you lose weight, which can often help lower your blood sugar. It’s not prescribed for this reason, but it can be a helpful benefit, since type 2 diabetes is often linked to being overweight.
Popular GLP-1 medicines
Several different companies make GLP-1 medicines. All of them are an injectable medication, which you take as a shot. The following are some popular brand names of these medications, along with how often they’re usually taken:
- Bydureon – once a week
- Byetta – usually twice a day, before the morning and evening meals
- Tanzeum – once a week
- Trulicity – once a week
- Victoza – once a day
Possible side effects
Like any type of medication, GLP-1 medicines can cause some people to have unwanted side effects. The most common one is nausea, and some people also experience vomiting. These symptoms may get better after you’ve been taking the medicine for a few weeks. Eating slowly, eating smaller meals, and drinking more water can also help reduce nausea and vomiting.
You may also experience some of the following side effects:
GLP-1 medications have also been linked to more serious side effects such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), pancreatic cancer, and thyroid cancer.
Your doctor can weigh your risk of side effects against the benefits that GLP-1 medicine can give you. By working with your doctor and following his or her advice about diet, exercise, and medication, you can improve your blood sugar levels as well as your overall health.