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HEALTHY-NUTRITION NATURAL SPORT

Is alcohol and weight loss surgery a risky combination?

Assorted alcoholic drinks (wine, beer, cocktail, brandy, and shot of liquor) lined up on dark wood bar; blurred alcohol bottles in background

For people with obesity, weight-loss surgery can reverse or greatly improve many serious health issues, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and pain. But these procedures also change how the body metabolizes alcohol, leaving people more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. A new study finds that one type of surgery, gastric bypass, may increase the dangers of drinking much more than other weight-loss strategies.

“Alcohol-related problems after weight-loss surgery are a known risk. That’s one reason we require people to abstain from alcohol for at least six months — and preferably a full year — before any weight-loss surgery,” says Dr. Chika Anekwe, an obesity medicine specialist at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. The new findings are interesting and make sense from a biological perspective, given the differences in the surgeries, she adds.

How does weight loss surgery affect alcohol absorption?

Weight-loss surgeries dramatically reduce the size of the stomach.

  • For a sleeve gastrectomy, the most common procedure, the surgeon removes about 80% of the stomach, leaving a banana-shaped tube.
  • For a gastric bypass, a surgeon converts the upper stomach into an egg-sized pouch. This procedure is called a bypass because most of the stomach, the valve that separates the stomach from the small intestine (the pylorus), and the first part of the small intestine are bypassed.

The lining of the stomach contains alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol. After weight-loss surgery, people have less of this enzyme available. So drinking wine, beer, or liquor will expose them to a higher dose of unmetabolized alcohol. Some alcohol is absorbed directly from the stomach, but most moves into the small intestine before being absorbed into the bloodstream.

After a sleeve gastrectomy, the pyloric valve continues to slow down the passage of alcohol from the downsized stomach to the small intestine. But with a gastric bypass, the surgeon reroutes the small intestine and attaches it to the small stomach pouch, bypassing the pyloric valve entirely. As a result, drinking alcohol after a gastric bypass can lead to extra-high blood alcohol levels. That makes people feel intoxicated more quickly and may put them at a higher risk of alcohol use disorders, says Dr. Anekwe.

Findings from the study on weight loss surgery and alcohol

The study included nearly 7,700 people (mostly men) from 127 Veterans Health Administration centers who were treated for obesity between 2008 and 2021. About half received a sleeve gastrectomy. Nearly a quarter underwent gastric bypass. Another 18% were referred to MOVE!, a program that encourages increased physical activity and healthy eating.

After adjusting for participants’ body mass index and alcohol use, researchers found that participants who had gastric bypass were 98% more likely to be hospitalized for alcohol-related reasons than those who had sleeve gastrectomy, and 70% more likely than those who did the MOVE! program. The rate of alcohol-related hospitalizations did not differ between people who had sleeve gastrectomy and those who did the MOVE! program.

The health harms of alcohol use disorder

Alcohol use disorder can lead to numerous health problems. Some require hospitalization, including alcoholic gastritis, alcohol-related hepatitis, alcohol-induced pancreatitis, and alcoholic cardiomyopathy. As the study authors note, people who had gastric bypass surgery had a higher risk of being hospitalized for an alcohol use disorder, even though they drank the least amount of alcohol compared with the other study participants. This suggests that change in alcohol metabolism resulting from the surgery likely explains the findings.

Advice on alcohol if you’ve had weight-loss surgery or are considering it

“We recommend that people avoid alcohol completely after any type of weight-loss surgery,” says Dr. Anekwe. A year after the surgery, an occasional drink is acceptable, she adds, noting that most patients she sees don’t have a problem with this restriction.

People who undergo weight-loss surgeries have to be careful about everything they consume to ensure they get adequate amounts of important nutrients. Like sugary drinks, alcohol is devoid of nutrients — yet another reason to steer clear of it.

Gastric bypass has become less popular than sleeve gastrectomy over the past decade, mostly because it’s more invasive and slightly riskier. While the new study suggests yet another downside of gastric bypass, Dr. Anekwe says it can still be a viable option for people with severe obesity, as bypass leads to more weight loss and better control of blood sugar than the sleeve procedure.

About the Author

photo of Julie Corliss

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Julie Corliss is the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter. Before working at Harvard, she was a medical writer and editor at HealthNews, a consumer newsletter affiliated with The New England Journal of Medicine. She … See Full Bio View all posts by Julie Corliss

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HEALTHY-NUTRITION NATURAL SPORT

Lead poisoning: What parents should know and do

Peeling pieces of paint arranged to spell the word lead; concept is lead poisoning

You may have heard recent news reports about a company that knowingly sold defective lead testing machines that tested tens of thousands of children between 2013 and 2017. Or wondered about lead in tap water after the widely reported problems with lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Reports like these are reminders that parents need to be aware of lead — and do everything they can to keep their children safe.

How is lead a danger to health?

Lead is poisonous to the brain and nervous system, even in small amounts. There really is no safe level of lead in the blood. We particularly worry about children under the age of 6. Not only are their brains actively developing, but young children commonly touch lots of things — and put their hands in their mouths. Children who are exposed to lead can have problems with learning, understanding, and behavior that may be permanent.

How do children get exposed to lead?

In the US, lead used to be far more ubiquitous than it is now, particularly in paint and gas. Yet children can be exposed to lead in many ways.

  • Lead paint. In houses built before 1978, lead paint can sometimes be under other paint, and is most commonly found on windowsills or around doors. If there is peeling paint, children can sometimes ingest it. Dust from old paint can land on the floor or other surfaces that children touch with their hands (and then put their hands in their mouths). If there was ever lead paint on the outside of a house, it can sometimes be in the dirt around a house.
  • Leaded gas. While leaded gas was outlawed in 1996, its use is still allowed in aircraft, farm equipment, racing cars, and marine engines.
  • Water passing through lead pipes. Lead can be found in the water of older houses that have lead pipes.
  • Other sources. Lead can also be found in some imported toys, candles, jewelry, and traditional medicines. Some parents may have exposure at work or through hobbies and bring it home on their hands or clothing. Examples include working in demolition of older houses, making things using lead solder, or having exposure to lead bullets at a firing range.

What can parents do to protect children from lead?

First, know about possible exposures.

  • If you have an older home, get it inspected for lead if you haven’t done so already. (If you rent, federal law requires landlords to disclose known lead-based paint hazards when you sign a lease.) Inspection is particularly important if you are planning renovations, which often create dust and debris that increase the risk of exposure. Your local health department can give you information about how to do this testing. If there is lead in your home, don’t try to remove it yourself! It needs to be done carefully, by a qualified professional, to be safe.
  • Talk to your local health department about getting the water in your house tested. Even if your house is new, there can sometimes be older pipes in the water system. Using a water filter and taking other steps can reduce or eliminate lead in tap water.
  • If you have an older home and live in an urban area, there can be lead in the soil. You may want to have the soil around your house tested for lead. Don’t let your child play in bare soil, and be sure they take off their shoes before coming in the house and wash their hands after being outside.
  • Learn about lead in foods, cosmetics, and traditional medications.
  • Learn about lead in toys, jewelry, and plastics (yet another reason to limit your child’s exposure to plastic).

Second, talk to your pediatrician about whether your child should have a blood test to check for lead poisoning. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Assessing young children for risk of exposure at all checkups between 6 months and 6 years of age, and
  • Testing children if a risk is identified, particularly at 12 and 24 months. Living in an old home, or in a community with lots of older homes, counts as a risk. Given that low levels of lead exposure that can lead to lifelong problems do not cause symptoms, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If there is any chance that your child might have an exposure, get them tested.

How is childhood lead exposure treated?

If your child is found to have lead in their blood, the most important next step is to figure out the exposure — and get rid of it. Once the child is no longer exposed, the lead level will go down, although it does so slowly.

Iron deficiency makes the body more vulnerable to lead poisoning. If your child has an iron deficiency it should be treated, but usually medications aren’t used unless lead levels are very high. In those cases, special medications called chelators are used to help pull the lead out of the blood.

For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website on lead poisoning prevention.

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD