GLP-1 Receptor Agonists: What Are They & What Do They Do?

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

A hot topic lately that I’m hearing throughout the industry is GLP-1 receptor agonists. People want to know what they are, what they do, and can they use them. Before we dive into all of that, let’s back up the bus a little bit.

More than half a billion people around the world are living with diabetes. The number is expected to increase by more than double to 1.3 billion people in the next 30 years, with every country seeing growth. In the United States, 34.2 million people live with diabetes, which is more than 10% of the population. With type 2 diabetes increasing at such an alarming rate, scientists and researchers have started looking for more medication and supplements to combat the issue — one of which is GLP-1 receptor agonists.

Glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists (GLP-1 receptor agonists) are a group of drugs that can be used to treat type 2 diabetes. GLP-1 receptor agonists have been shown to help effectively reduce blood sugar levels and have also been shown to potentially benefit kidney function and heart health.

In this article, we will dive deeper into what GLP-1 receptor agonists are, what they are for, who they are for, and some of the benefits outside of just helping with blood sugar management.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. It is recommended that you speak with your doctor before making any nutritional changes to your regimen or think GLP-1 receptor agonists may help you.

How Do GLP-1 Receptor Agonists Work?

GLP-1 is a natural hormone made in the small intestine. It helps control blood sugar levels by promoting insulin release (which helps cells absorb glucose) and reducing glucagon secretion (preventing excess glucose in the blood). It also slows down stomach emptying, so less glucose from food enters the bloodstream. Plus, it increases the feeling of fullness after meals, aiding in weight loss.

Short-acting GLP-1 receptor agonists work well in lowering peak glucose levels, while longer-acting ones have balanced effects on both post-meal and fasting glucose levels.

All GLP-1 receptor agonists affect our bodies in similar ways, but there are a few important points that differentiate them. They are classified as short-acting or long-acting, as it depends on how long they work in our bodies. To know which GLP-1 receptor agonists may be the best for you, your doctor will help you by looking at your blood sugar patterns and health history.

Here are the different types of GLP-1 receptor agonists:

Short-Acting GLP-1 Receptor Agonists
Short-acting GLP-1 receptor agonists stay in our body for less than one day. They help control blood sugar levels following meals. Short-acting GLA-1 receptor agonists that are approved for consumption in the US are exenatide (Byetta), oral semaglutide (Rybelsus), and lixisenatide (Adlyxin). You can take these medications once or twice daily, however your doctor recommends.

Long-Acting GLP-1 Receptor Agonists
If you opt for long-acting GLP-1 receptor agonists, they keep working for an extended period, up to a whole day or even a week after taking them. These medications help effectively manage your blood sugar levels around the clock, day and night. Long-acting GLP-1 receptor agonists that are approved for use in the US are liraglutide (Victoza), dulaglutide (Trulicity), exenatide extended-release (Bydureon), and liraglutide (Ozempic). You can take long-acting GLP-1 receptor agonists weekly, and Victoza can be taken once per day.

What Are the Health Benefits of GLP-1 Receptor Agonists?

GLP-1 receptor agonists are a form of a hormone known as incretin, which is lower than normal in those with type 2 diabetes. It belongs to a class of medications known as incretin mimetics. GLP-1 receptor agonists work on various organs throughout our body.

Below are some benefits you may experience when using GLP-1 receptor agonists (outside of the typical blood sugar management benefits):

1.      Brain Health

GLP-1 communicates with the hypothalamus, the brain’s area that controls hunger and thirst, telling it to reduce food and water intake. As a result, this can lead to weight loss.

It is critical to drink plenty of water or other fluids to stay hydrated when you are taking these medications, as GLP-1 receptor agonists dampen your thirst.

GLP-1 receptor agonists are widely present in different parts of the central nervous system, such as the hippocampus, neocortex, hypothalamus, spinal cord, and cerebellum. Over time, researchers have uncovered various mechanisms by which GLP-1 receptor agonists benefit the brain. These include reducing neuroinflammation, enhancing signal transduction in surviving cells, improving synaptic transmission, and countering learning deficits.

A recent study even found that exendin-4, a GLP-1 receptor agonist, could enhance the reference memory ability in adult rats.

2.      Stomach

GLP-1 receptor agonists reduce stomach acid secretion and slow down food emptying from the stomach. This prolongs the feeling of fullness, helping to control food intake and potentially leading to weight loss.

3.      Heart Health

Studies have revealed that medications like Ozempic, Trulicity, Rybelsus, or Victoza are associated with a significant decrease in major heart problems, including heart attacks, among individuals with diabetes and pre-existing heart disease. These medications have shown promising benefits in protecting the heart health of people living with diabetes.

4.      Endocrine Metabolism

GLP-1 receptor agonists have a dual impact, safeguarding the nervous and cardiovascular systems while also regulating metabolism. They enhance insulin levels, balance sex hormones, and improve blood lipid profiles. These medications show promise in managing conditions like PCOS, obesity, and NAFLD.