COMMENTARY

Bariatric Surgery a 'Magic Bullet' for Diabetes?

Anne L. Peters, MD, CDE

Disclosures

April 05, 2012

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Hi. I'm Dr. Anne Peters from the University of Southern California. Today I'm going to talk about the role of bariatric surgery in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

There have been a number of recent studies that show just how good bariatric surgery can be for patients with type 2 diabetes.[1,2] In many cases, it seems to cure type 2 diabetes (at least for now), and I think it is an important tool for treating patients with obesity and diabetes.

However, I also have concerns about bariatric surgery, concerns that go back for years as I watched its increased use. When I was a Fellow, I developed a sense of the benefit of extreme caloric restriction for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. I will never forget the first patient I had, an extremely obese man with type 2 diabetes who was on 200 units of insulin per day. His blood sugar levels remained high no matter what we did. He was a significant challenge in terms of management.

One day, he got sick. I don't remember how or why he got sick, but he ended up in the hospital and I thought that his management would continue to be incredibly difficult. In fact, it was miraculously easy. Within 2 days, he was completely off of insulin and his blood glucose levels remained normal for the entire time he was in the hospital.

This was only a short-lived benefit, however. After he was discharged, he went back to his old habits. He started eating normally, regained the weight, and went back on several hundred units of insulin per day. But it really impressed me how acute severe caloric restriction could, in essence, treat type 2 diabetes.

I have seen many overweight and obese patients with diabetes over the years, and I have seen the frustration as patients go on drugs (such as insulin) that are weight-gain drugs, and they keep gaining more weight. Although I am a big advocate for lifestyle change, many patients can't do much better. They can't lose appropriate amounts of weight by their own will or through weight loss programs, or increase their exercise. Therefore, bariatric surgery remains a reasonable option.

For many of my patients who have a body mass index > 35 and type 2 diabetes, I recommend that they at least consider bariatric surgery. Interestingly, very few of my patients actually go for the procedure and I ponder why this is. In part, I think it's because of the initial evaluation, when you are told what bariatric surgery is like and how much you have to change your habits after the procedure. Before surgery, you are eating however you want to eat and, although you may be trying to diet, there is no enforcement of that diet. After surgery, you have to change how you eat, the portions you eat, and when you eat. I know that people feel fuller, and this is a lot more than just changing one's anatomy. I think there are significant changes in gut hormones that regulate appetite and satiety. Nonetheless, it is a big change, and many people don't want to change their habits that much. I know I would be somewhat leery if I were to undergo a surgical procedure that would change my whole way of being. For lots of people, food has many different associations. It's not just caloric intake; it's festival, it's party, it's joy, it's sadness. It's something people like to do, and it hasn't a lot to do with just maintaining a positive or neutral caloric balance.

I find that people are reluctant to change, and that is understandable. We also don't know the long-term complications of the procedure. As an endocrinologist, I see 2 things. First, I tend to get sicker patients, so my patients who are on insulin when they undergo bariatric surgery may not get off insulin entirely. They become very disappointed because they think that bariatric surgery will cure them of their diabetes. I also see patients who are too thin, who are nutritionally deficient, who have severe hypoglycemia, or who have significant issues from the surgery itself. In some cases, these patients have needed a takedown of the surgical procedure, restoring them back to their native anatomy.

I think of bariatric surgery as a tool. It is one of many ways to treat our patients with type 2 diabetes. I am a little concerned because we don't have long-term follow-up data. I think that all bariatric surgery programs, in addition to doing a very thorough preoperative evaluation and counseling, need to do long-term, lifelong follow-up of these patients to see how they do, to see if their obesity returns. In many cases, this does happen. [Patients need to be followed up] to see what happens to their lipids, their blood pressure, and their blood sugar levels over time, and to monitor for other complications.

I think [bariatric surgery] is something that we need to recommend to our patients, and for those in whom it's appropriate, it is a reasonable step. This has been Dr. Anne Peters for Medscape.

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