Gastric bypass surgery changed your life or the life of someone you love – but were all those changes actually good ones? While this surgery for obesity can significantly reduce the risk of chronic, life-threatening conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, it may raise the risk for another chronic, potentially life-threatening condition: alcoholism.
The Gastric Bypass/Alcohol Abuse Link
About 200,000 people undergo bariatric surgery each year, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, and some of those people may go on to develop an alcohol abuse problem, even if one didn’t exist before their surgery.
- One study surveyed almost 2,000 gastric bypass patients before surgery and then one and two years after surgery. Researchers found that more patients reported alcohol abuse at the two-year follow-up than in pre-surgery surveys.
- A Swedish study that analyzed 12,000 patients over a 25-year period found that gastric bypass patients were two times more likely to enter alcohol addiction treatment than those who had other types of weight loss surgery, such as laparoscopic banding.
- Weight loss surgery patients showed significant increases in the abuse of substances, including alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes in the 24 months following surgery. The most noteworthy change was in people who had undergone gastric bypass; they demonstrated a significant increase in alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
Why Alcohol Is a Problem for Patients
In a person with a normal-sized stomach, enzymes work to partially break down alcohol. Gastric bypass reduces the stomach’s size to limit the person’s food intake. When someone who has had the surgery drinks alcohol, that enzyme breakdown doesn’t happen and the alcohol flows directly to the intestine, where it’s quickly absorbed. The process provides a rapid high.
Researchers have seen the effect gastric bypass has on alcohol metabolism. In one study, researchers measured blood alcohol content (BAC) every 5 minutes in gastric bypass patients who had consumed a glass of wine. Not only did they reach a higher BAC peak than those with a normal-sized stomach, the patients also required much more time to become sober.
It’s important to note that these alcohol-related problems have not yet been seen in patients who have undergone laparoscopic gastric banding. Health experts believe there hasn’t been a link because banding does not reduce the actual size of the stomach.
In addition to the physical changes, the nature of addiction itself may play a role in alcohol abuse in gastric bypass patients. It’s theorized by some health experts that a person who consumed enough food to become very obese likely had an addiction to food before the surgery. When the ability to eat is limited after surgery, he or she may substitute their food addiction with alcohol.
Another factor that may contribute to alcoholism after gastric bypass is the stress that comes from undergoing such as significant change. For a person who has lived with obesity for a long time, the sudden weight loss can come as an emotional shock. In addition, a patient who had relied on eating to cope with emotional pain or anxiety is no longer able to do so. Post-surgery, then, he or she may turn to alcohol to cope.
The stress of losing significant weight can also affect relationships with loved ones. While many family members and friends are happy about changes in weight, some may be jealous of the weight loss or resentful of the new freedom that change brings. For gastric bypass patients, these relationship changes can be stressful enough to drive addiction.
Should Alcoholics Get Weight Loss Surgery?
If you’re considering bariatric surgery and already live with an alcohol addiction, talk with your addiction counselor and bariatric team to discuss whether this is the right option for you. The increased risk of addiction should be weighed against the potential consequences of not getting surgery, including the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. If you need to lose significant weight, it’s possible that banding surgery, which has not been linked to increased addiction, would be an option.
Other factors that may indicate a higher risk for post-surgery alcohol abuse include consuming alcohol at least twice a week, prior substance abuse disorders, recreational drug use, or a history of smoking.
Find Help for Post-Surgery Addiction
If you’ve already had gastric bypass and struggle with alcoholism, your best bet for recovery is to get help from an alcohol rehab program or addiction specialist. Psychotherapy, sometimes called talk therapy, is the foundation for effective treatment. Therapy will help you examine the reasons you turn to alcohol use, and it will help you learn healthier coping strategies.
In addition to therapy, you’ll also need medical assistance. Alcohol abuse affects the nutritional intake of people with normal-sized stomachs, so it may have even more of an impact on the stomach of a gastric bypass patient. You may need guidance from a skilled dietitian to ensure you’re getting the proper nutrition that allows your body to heal from addiction.
You deserve a body that is physically and emotionally healthy. If you have concerns about gastric bypass and alcoholism, reach out to a health professional today.