Ozempic and Wegovy Might Be Supercharging Your Taste Buds

Semaglutide, the active ingredient in popular diabetes and obesity drugs Ozempic and Wegovy, can also tweak people’s taste buds for the better, preliminary research suggests. Scientists found that women taking semaglutide improved their taste sensitivity, particularly to sweetness. The findings may illuminate another reason why it and similar drugs can so effectively help people lose weight, the authors say.

The research was led by scientists from the University Medical Center in Ljubljana, Slovenia. They were intrigued by animal studies that appeared to show GLP-1, a hormone key to the body’s control of blood sugar and hunger, also plays an important role in influencing the perception of sweetness. In mice bred to no longer produce GLP-1, for instance, their sensitivity to sweetness seems dramatically reduced.

Semaglutide and other incretins are designed to mimic GLP-1, and some research has found that people on the drug tend to experience a decline in desire for sweet, savory and salty foods. The mechanisms behind this shift aren’t entirely clear, however, so the researchers wanted to see if a similar change in taste sensitivity can happen in humans as well as mice taking semaglutide.

It may sound unintuitive, but increasing taste sensitivity could actually help with weight loss by reducing the desire for excessively sweet, high-calorie foods. By perceiving sweetness more intensely, individuals might feel satisfied with smaller amounts of sugar, leading to a decrease in overall calorie intake.

The team conducted a 16-week-long trial with 30 women volunteers, with half receiving the drug and the other half a placebo. The volunteers had their taste sensitivity measured using strips containing all four basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, and bitter) placed on their tongue. Additionally, some of their tongue cells were collected to examine gene expression, and they underwent an MRI scan before and after tasting something sweet following a standard meal.

“The present study demonstrated that semaglutide improved taste sensitivity in women with obesity, meaning that the detection threshold for different concentrations of four basic tastes were improved,” lead study author Mojca Jensterle Sever told Gizmodo.

The team also found that the tongue cells of those taking semaglutide experienced changes in the expression of genes linked to the perception of sweetness and the renewal of taste buds. And via the MRI scans, they found changes in how users’ brains responded to sweetness, particularly in the angular gyrus of the parietal cortex. The angular gyrus is thought to help integrate our different senses to better understand the world around us and solve problems, while the parietal cortex is known to have cells that carry GLP-1 receptors.

The team’s findings are being presented this weekend at ENDO 2024, so they haven’t yet undergone the typical peer-review process. Sever notes their research is only a proof-of-concept study, intended to show that there’s something more to explore, not to definitively confirm a phenomenon. Since taste perception can vary significantly between different people, it’s also possible that GLP-1 drugs would not affect everyone’s taste buds the same way.

But research has suggested that at least some people with obesity perceive sweetness less intensely than usual, which might then help drive their craving for even sweeter, often more calorie-filled foods. GLP-1 drugs are thought to help treat obesity in several ways, such as by prompting the sense of fullness earlier into a meal than before. And it’s certainly possible that enhancing people’s sensitivity to sweetness might be another, the authors say.

“Our study provides ‘food for thought’ on the additional mechanisms by which semaglutide and other incretin-based therapies facilitate changes in food preference and eating behavior that might potentially lead to reductions in body weight beyond appetite suppression and improved control of eating,” Sever said.

Future studies, hopefully addressing the limitations of this current research, “will clarify whether the efficacy of semaglutide in treating obesity is also a matter of taste,” she added.

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