Can Gastric Bypass Surgery Turn You into an Alcoholic?
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Can Gastric Bypass Surgery Turn You into an Alcoholic?

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gastric bypass surgeryA friend from my group meeting once told me a pretty weird story about how her high school friend became an alcoholic after she underwent gastric bypass surgery. Her friend had not been a big drinker but had been enormously overweight so she had the surgery, and soon after started drinking heavily. She then switched over to opiates (because nothing cures alcoholism like a dope habit), and suffered a couple of overdoses before struggling to get sober. Let’s just say that I was a little skeptical about whether or not the bypass actually made her an alcoholic or not.

Lose The Weight, Gain The ‘Ism

I didn’t think much about the conversation, chalking it up as another tale in the bizarro world of addiction recovery that I live in, when I came across a story in Scienceline that says that people who have gastric bypass surgery do have a significant increase in what they call Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)—or, as we in recovery call it, a booze problem.

The story was based on a study by the National Institute of Health which found that only seven percent of those who had the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass procedure (RYGB) reported symptoms of AUD before the surgery. However, by the second year after surgery, 10.7 percent of patients reported symptoms of AUD, a relative increase of more than 50 percent compared to pre-surgical rates. In other words, for some reason, there was no increase in drinking in the first year after the surgery, but by the second year it just took off for some people. And this problem didn’t go just away after the second year either; a similar Swedish study that followed subjects for eight to 22 years found that alcoholism persisted throughout their lives.

“The increase in AUD seen in the second year may have resulted from an increase in alcohol sensitivity following the surgery coupled with the resumption of preoperative drinking levels,” said Wendy C. King, PhD at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the NIH study, in an interview with General Surgery News. “However, our study did not assess why patients drank more the second year.”

Not Shocking to Your Average Alcoholic

While I’m no scientist, all of this certainly lends itself to the “whack-a-mole” theory of addiction: put down the booze and the drug intake goes up; put down the drugs, and out come the scratch tickets and the casino visits; stop the gambling and start binge watching babysitter videos on TeenPink. You get the picture. When I first quit drinking in my 30s, I smoked a lot more pot and when I finally got sober, I started smoking cigarettes (it lasted four years) and pounding down a few tons of Ben and Jerry’s and Hostess Cupcakes (call it the reverse of what the now-alcoholic gastric bypass folks did). As the theory goes, if you can’t eat your fear, doubt and insecurity away, you’re bound to hit the bottle or find another escape route.

But that’s not true, at least not according to a second study, which found that patients that underwent the less traumatic adjustable gastric band surgery (which also limits food intake) did not see any increase in alcohol use. It was only the patients who had the gastric bypass procedure that had the significant spike in boozing, which means the results are specific to that type of surgery. One thing to note, though, is that this study was done with only 155 patients versus the 2,000 or so in previous studies.

Tough Call

Following the initial report done by NIH, ABC News did a story and interviewed Andrew Kahn, a guy who was only a social drinker before his weight-loss surgery. A couple years after the operation, he developed alcoholism and ended up in a rehab. “If I was given the choice between being obese and becoming an alcoholic, I would have thought about [my decision]more,” said Kahn.

Having to struggle with Hostess cupcakes or booze? For some, that truly may be the question.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.