The Truth About Weight Loss Surgery and AlcoholBy Dirkh
Bariatrics and booze don’t always mix.
For many people with obesity, bariatric surgery has proven to be a lifesaver. But for a subset of post-operative patients, the price for losing five pounds every time you step on the scale turns out to be an increased appetite for alcohol.
In a study of almost 2,000 patients who underwent surgery for severe obesity, the patients had either gastric bypass surgery (RYGB) in which a portion of the stomach and small intestine are removed, or gastric banding, a process by which an adjustable “lap band” is tightened around the entrance to the stomach. Those who opted for gastric bypass showed an increase in alcohol consumption two years after surgery, according to a recent study by Wendy C. King and coworkers in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The notion that weight loss surgery, known as bariatric surgery, was related to increased use of alcohol had been an anecdotal staple among patients with obesity for years. Oprah Winfrey based one of her daytime television shows on the rumor back in 2006. Dr. King and a diverse group of associates concluded last month at the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery annual meeting that “a significantly higher prevalence of alcohol use disorder” was associated with the second year following gastric bypass surgery. (During the first postoperative year, patients are strongly advised not to drink at all.)
Moreover, some of the patients who showed high-risk alcohol intake had not been problem drinkers before surgery. Some had not been drinkers at all. But the effects of gastric bypass, coupled with permission to drink a year after surgery, lead to an increase in alcohol abuse and alcoholism. While the overall increase was relatively modest, patients who had gastric bypass surgery were twice as likely to drink heavily than patients who underwent the lap band procedure.
“It’s a great study,” says Dr. Stephanie Sogg, staff psychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who was not associated with the study group. In an interview for this article, Sogg called the distinction between surgeries “an extremely important finding. They saw changes in alcohol use patterns with gastric bypass, but not with gastric banding. That’s exactly what we would expect.”
The findings make biochemical sense: “Gastric bypass surgery bypasses a part of the stomach that secretes alcohol dehydrogenase,”—a primary enzyme of alcohol metabolization, says Sogg. “And in gastric bypass, the alcohol is not coming into contact with the first part of the intestine, the duodenum. “That’s going to cause some changes in the way the body processes alcohol that aren’t true of gastric banding. If this were a case of people who are addicted to food having to change their eating and thus becoming addicted to alcohol, we would expect to see the same changes whether the person had gastric bypass or gastric banding.”
It would be natural to assume that people with prior drinking problems would have the most trouble with alcohol control postoperatively. But things are rarely that simple in medicine. “Previous alcohol history sets up people for risk of relapse, but there’s a significant subset of people having trouble with alcohol who never drank at all,” says Dr. Sogg. “That’s where the real story is.”
Dr. David B. Sarwer, associate professor of psychology and director of clinical services for the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, called the King study “the most definitive evidence to date on the prevalence of alcohol use disorders in persons who undergo bariatric surgery.” In an email exchange, Sarwer said: “Individuals with a history of alcohol or substance abuse are informed that the stress of the dietary and behavioral requirements of bariatric surgery, like all major life stressors, could threaten their sobriety or abstinence. However, we simply do not know enough about the use of alcohol and other substances after surgery to predict this with a great degree of certainty.”
Dr. Sogg agrees. For the bariatric surgery population, the pharmacokinetics of alcohol changes. They become more sensitized to its effects—a little now goes a long way. The main problem, she says, is that “we’re not good yet at predicting exactly whom it’s going to happen to.”
But she has some thoughts about vulnerable subsets. “Some people with obesity have poor coping skills,” she says. “And now alcohol is so much more potent and reinforcing for them that alcohol becomes the coping strategy. When this biological change with alcohol happens, they may be the ones who are at higher risk of responding to that change by developing problems with alcohol.”
Warning patients about alcohol risks of weigh-loss surgery is becoming more common, says Dr. Sogg. “It doesn't change my decision-making about whether somebody should or shouldn't have surgery. But we can evaluate people's coping skills before surgery and point out to them that it is important for them to develop other ways of dealing with negative emotions besides eating."
She also thinks that “people who have a history of actually becoming abstinent after drug or alcohol dependence may be better equipped for surgery. They will be less likely to put themselves in the path of alcohol use, and they have experience at making major successful long-term behavior changes. Basically, we should not consider past encounters with substance abuse as contraindications for surgery. But we should be carefully evaluating whether people are currently using substances at the time of surgery.”
In the end, she said, “I tell every one of my patients before surgery that they need to be aware of the risks of problem drinking after surgery, monitor their alcohol intake, and come back to us immediately at the first sign of any concerns about their drinking.”
King WC, Chen JY, Mitchell JE, Kalarchian MA, Steffen KJ, Engel SG, Courcoulas AP, Pories WJ, & Yanovski SZ (2012). Prevalence of Alcohol Use Disorders Before and After Bariatric SurgeryAlcohol Use Disorders and Bariatric Surgery. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 1-10 PMID: 22710289
Photo credit: http://www.treatment4addiction.com/
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