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Have You Had Bariatric Surgery? Here’s How To Avoid New Addictions

November 22, 2022

Weight loss surgery not only helps you drop pounds, it also stops you from overeating, which for many people is an addiction. But some bariatric patients transfer their food addiction to something else – like gambling, having sex, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or popping pills.

Doctors refer to this tradeoff as cross-addiction, transfer addiction, process addiction or habit swap. The best way to avoid starting a cross-addiction is to understand what causes it and how to avoid it.

What Is Cross-Addiction?

While genetics, hormones and inactivity may contribute to obesity, eating too much typically is why you might need bariatric surgery to lose weight. Since you can’t freely consume the foods or quantities you want post-surgery, you might find yourself overdoing something else that, in small doses, makes you feel pleasure.

Be Wary of Alcoholic Beverages

Increased alcohol consumption is likely the most common cross-addiction. Statistics show that while a small percentage of the general population consumes alcohol excessively, that amount is a point or two higher for bariatric patients. If you’ve had a weight loss operation, your doctor will advise you to never, or rarely, drink alcoholic beverages. That’s especially true if you’ve had the gastric bypass procedure, which causes metabolism changes.

In bariatric patients, alcohol goes into the system rapidly, causing euphoria, similar to the high formerly achieved from food. That rapid infusion can also damage the liver, as well as the linings of the stomach and small intestines.

Bariatric patients might not be addicted to alcohol, but they can get inebriated rapidly, and that can cause new medical problems. It’s best to abstain, or allow yourself one drink on a modest schedule, such as once a month.

It’s All About Moderation

Similarly, other activities can hover between reasonable and dangerous — depending on the parameters. In fact, an increase in sex, shopping and exercise might by a good sign: As you slim down you feel better about yourself, becoming less depressed and more sociable. Ultimately you become more open to going out in public and pursuing these activities. Too much, though, and these pleasures can become cross-addictions, including:

  • Sex. Male hormones change after severe weight loss. The body starts releasing more testosterone, which increases sex drive and can lead to addiction. Women and men may choose to have sexual relations more often once they’re thinner because they feel more attractive and ultimately lose some inhibitions.
  • Shopping. It’s possible to spend uncontrollably on new clothing after slimming down. And when you can now choose apparel in common sizes — within the traditional small to extra-Large range — you suddenly have the option of perusing the racks of far more stores. That can make shopping more enjoyable. Just keep the credit card, and quantities, in check.
  • Exercise. The world cheers on bariatric patients who later run marathons. Others might become so-called “gym rats,” working out frequently. Regular workouts do not indicate addiction. Legs, knees and feet often hurt too much to exercise when you’re obese. Once you’re free of the extra weight and are eager to maintain the smaller size, you might indeed become a regular on the treadmill, in aerobics class or in the yoga studio. Within reason, that’s a positive change.
  • Drugs. Bariatric patients who experience nausea or appetite loss after surgery sometimes turn to marijuana. It can increase appetite and decrease nausea. Where it’s legal, that can be helpful if used sparingly and under medical direction. Similarly, patients often take prescription pain medications in the days after surgery. Occasionally, patients have chronic abdominal pain unrelated to any pathological reason, so they continue to take the pills. That’s fine within limits, but can be dangerous in large quantities or over too long a period of time.

How To Avoid Developing a Cross-Addiction

It’s awful to have one addiction color your life just as another dissolves. Take these steps to avoid trouble.

  • Address problems before surgery. If you drink, shop, pick at your skin, play the slots or do any other activity too often, try to stop. Use self-awareness, therapy, prescription anti-anxiety medications, support groups or whatever works for you to end all addictions before scheduling surgery.
  • Assess if you’re at risk. Take a look at your life, ask yourself tough questions and answer honestly. Factors such as family history, childhood trauma, isolation, depression and past addictive behavior can make you more at risk for trading one addiction for another.
  • Question your behaviors. How do you handle being upset, anxious or obsessive? If the answers involve actions considered unhealthy, practice new, healthier options.

How To Stay Addiction-Free Post-Surgery

If you enter surgery without non-food addictions, it’s relatively easy to remain addiction-free once surgery is done, and throughout your life.

First, be mindful. It’s a matter of paying attention to yourself. That means to look closely at your feelings, and behaviors, when they waver. If you see yourself moving toward excessiveness, ask for help. See a therapist or psychiatrist. You also can attend an independent 12-step program or other group support initiative. You’ll hear others express emotions similar to yours, and that can be healing.

Second, regularly visit your bariatric doctor. Most patients stop coming for checkups about six months after surgery. Bariatric physicians are experts at noticing changes good and bad, including cross-addictions, and can lead you to trustworthy resources. Long-term post-op follow-up is crucial.

Weight ruled your life. By being mindful and proactive, you can be free to live a mentally and physically healthy, addiction-free life for decades to come.

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