Gastric Bypass And Alcohol Use: Understanding the Risks

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Over 40 percent of Americans suffer from obesity.1 In many cases, this condition can pose imminent danger to one’s health. As a result, many people opt for gastric bypass surgery as an alternative when diet and exercise have failed.

But, unfortunately, one worrisome side effect of this surgery is greater vulnerability to the effects of alcohol. In fact, statistics show significantly higher rates of alcoholism after gastric bypass. Here, we’ll explore the relationship between gastric bypass surgery and alcohol addiction, and how to avoid the problem.

What Is Gastric Bypass Surgery?

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Gastric bypass is a form of weight-loss surgery2 which involves creating a small pouch from the stomach and connecting it directly to the small intestine. After gastric bypass, food travels into this small pouch and then directly into the intestine, bypassing most of the stomach and the first section of the small intestine.

Gastric bypass is one of the most common types of bariatric surgery. Many people choose surgery after they have exhausted other options, or when they have serious weight-related health concerns such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or severe sleep apnea.

In general, gastric bypass and other weight-loss surgeries are considered if one’s body mass index (BMI) is 40 or higher, also known as extreme obesity. A lower BMI may qualify if serious health risks are evident.

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Does Gastric Bypass Surgery Increase Your Risk of Alcoholism?

Although there are many health benefits to gastric bypass surgery, certain risks need to be considered. Among those risks is the impact of drinking alcohol. Evidence indicates that after the surgery, most people become much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol.3 Some studies reveal that each drink can have double its usual effect, and last up to 50 percent longer.4

So, what is the relationship between gastric bypass and alcohol abuse? Unfortunately, 20 percent5 of people who have had gastric bypass surgery develop alcohol use disorder (AUD),  which is around triple the rate for the general population.

A 2012 study found that two years after surgery, patients demonstrated a higher rate of alcohol addiction that, in many cases, could be attributed to the gastric bypass.6 A study published in 2017 followed up with more than 2,000 patients within several years of receiving bariatric surgery. More than 20 percent displayed AUD symptoms at some point.7

“At Ria, we’ve seen many patients who develop AUD after bariatric surgery,” says John Mendelson, Ria Health’s chief medical officer. “In many cases this occurs months to years after surgery.”

Why Is There a Connection?

One possible reason for this link is that bariatric surgery alters your stomach and affects certain hormones in your body, including ghrelin, leptin, and dopamine.8 These hormones influence hunger, the rewards of eating, and can also influence alcohol consumption. In other words, drinking more after surgery may be related to altered body chemistry and the increased feeling of reward.

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Research also shows that, because gastric bypass patients metabolize alcohol differently, they get drunker quicker and take longer to sober up. In a 2007 Stanford study, people who had undergone gastric bypass took an average of 108 minutes to reach a breathalyzer reading of zero after a single glass of wine, versus 72 minutes for the control group.9 Since alcohol has a more powerful effect, it may become more appealing to drink.

Finally, it is always possible that addiction transfer comes into play. If someone is addicted to overeating, they may transfer that tendency to other substances such as alcohol in the process of making a change.

Among gastric bypass patients, other factors that might influence vulnerability to alcohol addiction include being male, younger age, smoking, pre-surgical AUD, and a lower sense of belonging.10 Overall, however, there are still many unanswered questions about gastric bypass and alcohol abuse.

Keeping a Healthy Relationship With Alcohol After Gastric Bypass Surgery

After receiving gastric bypass surgery, your physician will likely instruct you to completely avoid alcohol for at least the first six months of your recuperation. Afterwards, the best approach is to reintroduce it gradually, if at all, and be very mindful of the impact it is having. If you discover that it has a more pleasurable effect than before, or that you are drinking more frequently, it is advisable to abstain altogether.

For those individuals who have a longer history of alcohol misuse, this process may be more complicated. In this case, it is essential to address any drinking problems prior to surgery, and to maintain a strong support system afterwards.

Needless to say, this can be a challenge for many people. It’s important to know that you’re not alone, and that resources and support are available.

At Ria Health, we use the latest scientific approaches, including FDA-approved medications, to help our members reduce or stop drinking. Our members show an average 75 percent reduction in alcohol use within one year. And, according to CMO Dr. John Mendelson, “the response to treatment is similar in post-bariatric surgery patients to patients who haven’t had surgery.”

Get in touch with us today to learn how we can support you in keeping a healthy relationship with alcohol.

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Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who resides in upstate New York. She especially enjoys writing about health, wellness and living your best life.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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