Unhealthy Drinking May Worsen After Weight Loss Surgery

Richard M. Plotzker, MD


May 20, 2021

Internal medicine primarily affords us the skill to cope with disorders of chronicity that rarely disappear. For every pneumococcal pneumonia we eradicate, we have multiple patients with HIV who will be treated indefinitely. Diabetes, once a lethal disease, is now a chronic condition for most patients, and even with treatment the trajectory is usually one of progression.

One gratifying exception in my professional lifetime has been the introduction of gastric surgeries that reduce morbidity and seem to extend the life span of those who successfully undergo these procedures. The Roux-en-Y gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy have kept thousands of patients in better health for many years, giving them a second chance. For a subset, however, this second chance comes with a stumbling block of substance use — most notably alcohol — that exceeds their preoperative use.

Increased Alcohol Use After Surgery

A group affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently reviewed their large central database to identify changes in alcohol consumption among patients who had undergone successful bariatric surgery. The VA regularly administers the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test-Consumption (AUDIT-C), a survey validated as a reliable estimate of individual alcohol consumption. It is inserted into the VA electronic health record where it can be readily retrieved. By matching these survey results with individuals who underwent bariatric surgery at the VA and survived at least 8 years post-op, the authors were able to follow trends in alcohol consumption, beginning 2 years before surgery through 8 years after.

Using the same database, the authors identified a larger number of nonoperative control patients with slightly less obesity but otherwise matched for several elements of comorbidity, such as hypertension, certain psychiatric disorders, and personal habits, including alcohol consumption.

Alcohol use was categorized as none, minor social use, and "unhealthy" use. Among those with no or minor social use preoperatively, 4% converted to unhealthy use at 3 years and about 5% at 8 years, significantly more than in the nonoperative control group. Those who had gastric bypass had somewhat more conversion than those who had sleeve gastrectomy, though not significantly so.

Patients with an alcohol concern preoperatively took an interesting course. Consumption declined from 2 years pre-op to the year of surgery, suggesting that curtailing its use may have been a surgical precondition. Postoperatively, they returned to unhealthy drinking levels. Those who underwent the sleeve gastrectomy consumed about the same amount of alcohol as their matched nonoperative controls, but those who underwent bypass increased their baseline unhealthy use beyond that of the controls.

Because total abstinence is often the recommendation for treating alcoholism, the research group assessed how adherent the excessive drinkers were to abstinence. In anticipation of surgery, the rates of abstinence increased until the year of surgery, but by 3 years post-op, consumption was often up to unhealthy levels, though no more than that of control participants with pre-existing drinking problems.

Smoking and Illicit Drug Use

Although increased alcohol consumption has generated the most studies, some attention has been given to smoking and illicit drug use, which may also increase over time.

One small study looked at composite tobacco, alcohol, and drug use pre- and postoperatively over 2 years, using population data. The authors found a parallel pattern of users voluntarily reducing their substance use in anticipation of surgery but relapsing as the procedure made them more functional and perhaps more independent. Of the substances people resumed, alcohol by far involved the largest increase in use from the preoperative baseline.

These studies, as important as they are, reveal what happened more effectively than they disclose why it happened. The latter requires some clinical experience. Curtailing cigarettes and alcohol use preoperatively may have been done to stay in the good graces of the surgeon. Many patients may have seen this as their path to a second chance that they intended to maintain.

The incentive to proceed to surgical weight loss, which incurs a measure of risk and forces changes in long ingrained eating habits, involves avoiding future morbidity and promoting longevity. Thus, the postoperative behaviors that threaten the long-term goal need to become a component of ongoing follow-up.

The acquisition of adverse behaviors not present preoperatively seems more difficult to sort out, and obligates those of us following these patients to ask about changes in alcohol use and provide resources for them should they need intervention.

Richard M. Plotzker, MD, is a retired endocrinologist with 40 years of experience treating patients in both private practice and hospital settings. He has been a Medscape contributor since 2012.


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