By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.
Anti-obesity medication or weight loss drugs refer to all pharmacological agents that reduce or control weight. These drugs alter one of the fundamental processes of the human body, weight regulation, by either altering appetite, metabolism, or absorption of calories. It is common for them to be tried and if there is little or no benefit from them to discontinue treatment. The main treatment modalities for overweight and obesity remain dieting and physical exercise.
Only one anti-obesity medications orlistat (Xenical) is currently approved by the FDA for long term use. It reduces intestinal fat absorption by inhibiting pancreatic lipase. Rimonabant (Acomplia), a second drug, works via a specific blockade of the endocannabinoid system. It has been developed from the knowledge that cannabis smokers often experience hunger, which is often referred to as "the munchies". It had been approved in Europe for the treatment of obesity but has not received approval in the United States or Canada due to safety concerns. European Medicines Agency in October 2008 recommended the suspension of the sale of rimonabant as the risk seem to be greater than the benefits. Sibutramine (Meridia), which acts in the brain to inhibit deactivation of the neurotransmitters, thereby decreasing appetite was withdrawn from the United States and Canadian markets in October 2010 due to cardiovascular concerns.
Because of potential side effects, it is recommended that anti-obesity drugs only be prescribed for obesity where it is hoped that the benefits of the treatment outweigh its risks. Some anti-obesity drugs have severe or life-threatening side effects, fen-phen being a famous example. These side effects are often associated with their mechanism of action. In general, stimulants carry a risk of high blood pressure, faster heart rate, palpitations, closed-angle glaucoma, drug addiction, restlessness, agitation, and insomnia. Another drug, orlistat, blocks absorption of dietary fats, and as a result may cause oily spotting bowel movements (steatorrhea), oily stools, stomach pain, and flatulence. A similar medication, designed for patients with Type 2 diabetes, is Acarbose which partially blocks absorption of carbohydrates in the small intestine, and produces similar side effects, including stomach pain and flatulence.
The limitation of drugs for obesity is that we do not fully understand the neural basis of appetite and how to modulate it. Appetite is clearly a very important instinct to promote survival. Arguably any drug that would abolish appetite may carry a high mortality risk and may be unsuitable for clinical use. Because the human body uses various chemicals and hormones to protect its stores of fat (a reaction probably useful to our ancestors when food was scarce in the past,) there has not yet been found a 'silver bullet', or a way to completely circumvent this natural habit of protecting excess food stores. Because of this, anti-obesity drugs are not a practical long-term solution for people who are overweight.
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