Gastric Bypass Surgery Linked to Increased Risk of Alcoholism

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Gastric bypass and Lap-Band surgery are two increasingly popular procedures that are used to aid in weight loss.  A new study has found a link between gastric bypass surgery and an increased risk of alcoholism. The study’s data indicates that people who are treated with gastric bypass are more than twice as likely to later enter into treatment for alcoholism compared to those who have Lap-Band surgery.

The study, which was conducted by a team of Swedish researchers, compared the medical records of more than 12,000 formerly-obese patients who had received weight loss surgery to approximately 122,000 people who were healthy and had not had surgery.  Before weight-loss surgery, the obese patients were more likely to suffer from depression, attempted suicide and alcoholism than the healthy group.  After surgery, the presence of all of these disorders remained high, but the incidence of treatment for alcoholism was 2.3 time higher among patients who had undergone a gastric bypass procedure that for those who had undergone Lap-Band.

The different rates in alcohol abuse can be attributed to the different techniques used by these two weight-loss surgeries.  Gastric bypass surgery forms a small pouch at the top of the stomach and creates a bypass around the stomach and a portion of the intestines.  The new stomach is comparable in size to a walnut and can only hold the equivalent of about six grapes.  In contrast, Lap-Band reduces the amount of food that can be comfortably eaten by placing an inflatable band made of silicon around the stomach, but food still passes through the entire digestive system after it has been consumed.

Dr. John Morton, a Stanford School of Medicine gastric bypass specialist, attributes the greater risk of alcoholism to the absence of enzyme breakdown that normally occurs when alcohol passes through the stomach.  This breakdown does not take place for people who have had gastric bypass surgery, causing alcohol to enter the intestines at almost full strength.  Alcohol is absorbed by the intestines very quickly and enters the blood in higher concentrations.

The Swedish study confirmed what many doctors have suspected about gastric bypass surgery.  In 2008, the Oprah Winfrey Show focused on bypass patients who had transitioned from compulsive eating to compulsive drinking.  That show quoted experts as saying that 30% of people who undergo gastric bypass develop a problem with alcohol abuse, gambling, sex addiction or other types of compulsive behavior.  The blame was placed on unresolved psychological issues that were not solved through bypass surgery.  Now scientific evidence points to a physical component that contributes to the increased risk of alcohol abuse.

According to Dr. Morton, one glass of red wine can make a gastric bypass patient legally drunk regardless of their current weight.  Patients who are about to undergo gastric bypass surgery should be screened for alcohol abuse before surgery and receive counseling about the effects of alcohol consumption following surgery.  They should also be advised against driving after even one drink of alcohol.