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Unexpected side effect of weight loss surgery: Less risky drinking

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Weight loss surgery (WLS) has been theorized to reduce alcohol tolerance, but a new study from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center indicates half of high-risk drinkers completely stopped risky drinking behavior, like binges, after WLS. The study appears in the medical journal Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases.

Lead researcher, Christina Wee, noted, “Given the greater clinical attention being paid to caloric intake and substance abuse issues after WLS, we hypothesized that a subset of high-risk drinkers who undergo WLS may actually experience [greater] high-risk drinking. This is the first study to show that high-risk drinking may actually improve post weight loss surgery.”

“So much of the existing literature focuses on increased risk”, says researcher George Blackburn. “Even though we expected to see something different with this data, we were still surprised by the findings.”

WLS includes gastric bypass, temporary stomach bands, bariatric surgery and sleeve gastrectomy. About one in six patients reported high-risk drinking before WLS. At one year after surgery, two thirds of gastric bypass patients and nearly half of gastric banding patients reported ceasing high-risk drinking. And at year two “half of gastric bypass and more than half of gastric banding patients reported this improvement,” write the authors.

“It’s possible that previous studies may have missed this positive effect because post-surgery alcohol use wasn’t compared against baseline consumption,” says Wee.

While this decrease in high-risk drinking is important, the study also found that seven percent of WLS patients without high-risk drinking before WLS reported new high-risk drinking at year one and two years following WLS.

The study notes more research is necessary to understand why weight loss surgery seems to help some patients improve alcohol misuse, while it increases misuse in others. Wee adds, “We also need to better understand which patients are at highest risk for alcoholism so that we might better counsel and monitor them.”

Wee thinks understanding the complete picture can better prepare clinicians to counsel their patients who are considering weight loss surgery and follow up with them after surgery. “Often, high-risk drinkers are steered away from weight loss surgery. Knowing that a significant percentage of these patients may actually cease high-risk drinking after weight loss surgery may help us recommend more patients for surgery.”

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