Food Addicts May Turn To Alcohol After Bariatric Surgery

The Link Between Alcohol Abuse In Bariatric Patients and Food Addiction 

The idea – revelation might be a better word – that certain foods are addictive to some people in the same way alcohol and cocaine are for others keeps bubbling to the surface.  While not a new concept, it is becoming more mainstream to accept that kicking the potato chip or Taco Bell burrito-nacho habit is just as difficult as giving up nicotine.

This may be the reason why some people that have bariatric surgery develop problems with alcohol within two years after the surgery and may give more credibility to research being done that connects overeating with addiction.

Patients may be swapping food for alcohol.

Research Shows That Alcohol And Food Are Not All That Different 

Wendy King, a University of Pittsburgh assistant professor in epidemiology followed 2,458 patients after they underwent bariatric surgery.  The patients were, on average, 47 years of age, female (79%) and white (87%).  Two years after surgery, almost 10 percent showed signs of alcohol problems.

The patients most susceptible to alcohol misuse were those that underwent a procedure known as Roux-en-Y, which restricts food by creating a small pouch in the stomach.

There are several theories as to why this procedure would result in 10% of patients overdrinking two years later:

  • The procedure allows alcohol to be absorbed more quickly by the body.
  • Patients become tired of the strict rules about what they eat or drink.
  • After weight loss they develop new social lives that include drinking.
  • They lose their tolerance for alcohol consumption when they lose weight.

Dr. T. Karl Byrne, a professor of bariatric surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina thinks it’s something else. He says, “Patients who are morbidly obese are addicted to food.  If this addiction is altered or improved with bariatric surgery, there may be a transfer of the addiction to alcohol, gambling, hypersexuality, spending and shopping. It’s not the surgery. It’s the addictive personality.”

Connecting The Dots

Obesity may be subject to malfunctions in the dopamine system in the brain in the same way smokers, cocaine users and drinkers are.  Nora Volkow, one of the country’s most prominent drug addiction researchers and the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse is a champion of the idea that drug addiction is a medical problem, rather than a lack of willpower.

One of Volkow’s colleagues, Gene-Jack Wang, discovered that the brain of obese individuals are tuned into food even when lying quietly in an MRI machine.  He found that the mouth, tongue and lips in obese patients who underwent MRI scans were more active than normal-weight people.  His research also showed they have fewer dopamine receptors in the brain and concluded that what motivates people to eat is clearly more than hunger.

Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that is involved in motivation, pleasure and learning.  It doesn’t discriminate against things that are bad for you.  If you get a dopamine ‘rush’ from McDonalds French fries, a shot of Cuervo Gold or a line of cocaine, that’s okay.  The brain will encourage you to seek more of whatever it was that caused the dopamine to kick out in abundance in the first place. And it’s different in everyone. As scientist and researchers begin to connect the dots between the brain and highly satiable foods there will be more proof that food addiction is just as real as a dependency on cigarettes.

Finding Support 

Overcoming an addiction to food is as difficult as other substances but there is help. Overeaters Anonymous, a sister to Alcoholics Anonymous has over 6,500 meetings in 80 countries.  It engages members in a 12 step program that addresses physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

If you or someone you love suffers from an addiction to food, finding a meeting in the area could be the answer.  Click here for the OA website.  The  OA blog may also be of interest.

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