Gastric Bypass Surgery Increases Risk of Alcoholism

Gastric bypass surgery patients experience significant life changes after dramatic weight loss, but most do not expect alcoholism to be one of them.

Anecdotal evidence shows that weight loss surgery patients often struggle with cross addictions when overeating no longer is an option. Now, a new study reports that one in ten gastric bypass patients experience alcohol addiction within two years of their surgery.

Craig Thompson, founder and president of the Weight Loss Surgery Channel, shared about his own struggle with alcoholism after gastric bypass on the Dr. Drew show.


Thompson, who lost 200 pounds after having an open Roux-en-Y gastric bypass in 1997, said he never had problems with alcohol during the first 18 months after surgery, and was losing up to two pounds a day.

“I was truly living the euphoric dream,” he said. “But then I started finding that things I never used to have a challenge with were taking control of what I did.”

Many medical experts have attributed the high rate of alcoholism among gastric bypass patients to addiction transference — the substitution of alcohol, drugs, compulsive gambling, or other addictions for the previous addiction to food. But, the new study indicates that in the case of gastric bypass patients, biology may be the driving factor.

“There have been previous studies that show there is a change in alcohol sensitivity in gastric bypass,” said Wendy King, a research assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the study’s lead author.

The researchers noted that the changes made to the stomach and intestines with the gastric bypass procedure cause alcohol to enter the blood stream very rapidly. Patients feel the effects of alcohol very quickly, even when they consume very little.

Less than two years after his own gastric bypass surgery, Thompson found that his drinking had spiraled out of control. Although the physical changes were a trigger, he believes that family history and unresolved emotional trauma were primarily to blame.

“What I learned was that the size of my tummy was never the problem. What the doctors had treated was a symptom, not really the core issue. And since the core issue had never been treated, I was susceptible to other things taking its place,” Thompson said.

Show host Dr. Drew Pinsky expounded on Thompson’s experience for viewers, noting, “This all, whether it’s substance or eating, is a bid to regulate emotions that are too prolonged, too intense or too negative. When we correct the food problem, the emotional disregulation is still there, and now we have a plumbing situation that increases the effect of alcohol and POW, off it goes.”

Singer Carnie Wilson, who helped raise public awareness and acceptance of weight loss surgery after her gastric bypass in 1999, confessed to viewers on Oprah that she, too, struggled with alcohol addiction after the surgery.

“I was getting drunk very fast, and I was getting sober very fast,” she said during her 2006 appearance. “It was frightening…because I saw myself going down a dark spiral very quickly,” she added earnestly.

Weight loss surgery has proven to be the most effective treatment for clinical obesity, and can resolve numerous obesity-related diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea. Bariatric surgeons increasingly are recognizing the critical importance of pre-operative counseling, as well as after care and post-operative support groups, to ensure that patients are aware of the risk of alcoholism and other addictive tendencies after surgery.

Despite his struggles with cross-addiction, Craig Thompson still believes he made the right decision to have the gastric bypass.

Said Thompson, “I would recommend it to anyone who was in the same situation that I was in mentally, physically and emotionally. I would encourage them to seek a professional opinion regarding weight loss surgery.”

16 Responses

  1. Kathy

    After a crash diet I started drinking. Progressinvely it got worse. I wouldn’t say I was an alcoholic but after some embarassing incidents I chose to stop drinking. I then turned to food and eventually became 310. Now I have less than 5 drinks a year. I get tipsy seriously fast post surgery. Another reason not to drink.
    Excellent job Craig!!!

  2. Nancy

    I had surgery in 2005. In 2007 I took up drinking which caused weight gain, I have been in 3 rehabs but always relasp. My depression is worse. I feel like a big fat failure now. Fat again and an acholic. I wish someone would have warned me because I rarely dranks if ever before surgery. Can’t we start a class action suit or something. I need help or I will die

  3. jill rodger

    the thing is we can all live without the booze and the drugs but we cannot live without food If we are addicted to food how can our addiction be overcome no wonder we move on to another addictive behavious I am struggling with wanting to start smoking again after 12 years tobacco free

  4. Scott

    I have the same issue I drank before I had the surgery, but not like this. I have done many things that has embarrass my wife and kids. Now I am faced with a up hill climb drinking between 2 and 3 cases of beer a week and not even drinking every day. However, I have not gained more than 10 lbs from it, and like the studies show it was almost two years to the day when it all started for me.

  5. Magnolia

    Try 5 rehabs and a psych ward because alcohol hits me like euphoria. Then I wind up in the heart unit or being taken out of my home against my drunken state of mind and off to rehab. Tired of this sick cycle. It IS SOOO HARD. HARD. SCARY. BAFFLING. If I had known THEN what I know now.. I’m risking my life EVEN MORE. Depression, drinking and suicide attempts. For now, I ask God everyday to please help me to keep the bottle down, go to AA meetings and keep in touch with fellow alcoholics in recovery.

  6. Magnolia

    P.S. Craig – Your story is so similar to mine we could be twins. I am a 3rd generation alcoholic as well. Never ever warned about alcoholism.. and the hosp that performed my surgery is a bariatric-specific hospital! My psych consultation I was asked by my psych doc if I drink. I told him EXACTLY.. maybe twice a year.. AND IT WAS THE TRUTH!! 31 years old I claimed my name as an alcoholic and am in recovery (see abcve post). If there is ever a class action lawsuit – count me in.

  7. Confused

    I thought this surgery was going to change my life for the better! Now, seven years later I am nothing but a functional drunk! I work all day and drink all night in utter shame! Never once was this risk or concern discussed with me. I NEVER had an issue with alcohol before now! Sure I lost weight in the beginning, but now I am up 40% of my total loss so my overall sucess is back to gaining weight PLUS alcoholism…WOW! Not so sure I would ever consider this for a solution ever again! So sorry I added this mess to my life! You better think long and hard before you do this!

  8. Unspeakablejoy

    I too am a emotional eater and have under gone gastric bypass. I know that just losing weight is not the answer for me. The answer is to identify and work on the pain and issues that caused me to use food as a emotional crutch in the first place. If I don’t do that, then I would be more inclined to find another crutch to use, since food would not be possible. I think that all too often we look at the bandaid approach to healing, without looking at the root cause. The excess weight I carried was a symptom, the problem was/is deeper emotional issues that needed to be worked on. None of this is easy, but I also know myself,”self medicating” in private (be it food, drugs or alcohol) works for awhile until we finally get sick of the life we are leading, not living, and decide to get real with ourselves. We can blame but ultimatley the blame is ours alone, we make choices sometimes good, sometimes bad but still choices. If we don’t choice to get healthy is all areas we can keep going down that rabbit hole. Nobody made me eat, drink or even use zanax. Stop blaming and start looking at the deeper root issues. All blaming is going to do is keep you stuck in the life you hate.!

  9. B Savoie

    I thought that my life would be perfect if I wasn’t fat. I had the surgery in 2007. I lost 150 pounds. I never had a problem with drinking either. I have struggled with other issues, so I can’t blame drinking on the surgery. I didn’t gain weight from drinking. I haven’t gained enough to get up to my target weight. I think that once you are in the spotlight and watch yourself more, it makes you think you drink more than you did before the surgery. It makes others watch you more as well, which leads to closet drinking so not to be criticized, which leads to depression, guilt and even more drinking. So to end the cycle, just deal with the fact that you have another vise instead of food, maintain some self-control, and put down the booze. If you think you are an alcoholic, you probably aren’t. But you realize that there is a potential problem. Most alcoholics don’t ever admit to having a problem. If you can wake up one day and decide you are going to take a break without having to have an intervention, then you should find a new hobby. Good luck to everyone who is struggling, may you find your peace.

  10. karen prescott

    I especially identify with nancy.. my daughter had the surgery 5 years ago and 2 years later became a full-fledged alcoholic. her life has become a nightmare and nothing has helped her. She has been in two 30 day rehabs, four 14 day rehabs, has been in ICU for dt’s, psych units, aa–all to no avail. She has gone from being a high level executive to an unemployed, hopeless alcoholic. I don’t know what will become of her when I die. I am very angry that the dr.s didn’t have the full story on this situation before they started doing all these surgeries. This is not cross-addiction. There is a physiological reason for developing alcoholism after this surgery. Otherwise, the statistics would be similar for lap-band surgery and they are not. If anyone knows of a class-action suit, count me in. I will pray for you all and hope there is a solution.

  11. Tammy

    I don’t WANT to sue anyone …I need help the shame is unbearable\

  12. Emily

    My mother had this done– The roux-en-y and she’s been slowly dying since. They fudged the surgery and she’s been vomiting and nauseous ever since. She’s slowly starving to death, unable to absorb the nutrients in her food. She adapted a honey allergy for her previous bee-allergy so we have to be careful whenever we go out to eat that the barbecue sauce isn’t honey barbecue. She’s had a restorative surgery because they left part of her old stomach in there and she has lost her teeth due to the vomiting and malnutrition and her insurance won’t cover new teeth. If anyone knows about a class-action lawsuit in the coming… It would be greatly appreciated. She has lupus, cancer, and Rheumatoid arthritis.

  13. Lisa

    I will be following up with a law firm who specializes in bariatric complications lawsuits. My husband just lost a $70,000/year job because he blew a .076 BAC at work. He had 7.5 glasses of wine between 8 pm and 1 am. He was tested at 9 am after his boss smelled alcohol. Please see this study re: alcohol metabolism after bs.

  14. Jane

    To whoever is reading this: You are not a failure and you are not “transferring addiction.” What you are is hungry, and what you are hungry for is sugar, which is the fastest most effective form of metabolic energy available to human beings. What you are doing when you drink alcohol is replacing the sugar — the energy — you are missing from your diet through longterm starvation because you can’t eat enough food to nourish your cells.

    You are responding to famine.

    What you need to do is start eating sugar. A lot of sugar — it will go very quickly through your stomach and your system. When I say sugar I do not mean cake or pie — I mean sugar drinks, maple syrup, honey, fruit juice. Sugar without starch and without fat. The more of this you have in your diet the less you will crave alcohol. If you have enough plain sugar, without starch, without fat — in your diet — you will not want to drink alcohol because your body will not be looking for it as a source of energy.

  15. Lisa

    Consuming sugar at all is difficult, if not impossible (dumping) for some post-bariatric and can be very dangerous, even life-threatening for some due to reactive hypoglycemia. Moreover, hypoglycemia has been correlated with increased risk for dementia. I DO NOT think sugar is the problem re alcoholism, nor is it the answer. If anything, sugar and the roller coaster it sends anyone on due to fluxuating glycemic index is correlated with alcohol abuse.