Can Weight Loss Surgery Help Fight Diabetes?

    A yellow tape measureThough it began as a treatment for something else entirely, gastric bypass surgery — which involves shrinking the stomach as a way to lose weight — has proven to be the latest and possibly most effective treatment for some people with type 2 diabetes.

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    Just days after the surgery, even before they start to lose weight, people with type 2 diabetes see sudden improvement in their blood sugar levels. Many are able to quickly come off their diabetes medications.

    “This is not a silver bullet,” said Dr. Vadim Sherman, medical director of bariatric and metabolic surgery at the Methodist Hospital in Houston. “The silver bullet is lifestyle changes, but gastric bypass is a tool that can help you get there.”

    The surgery has risks, it isn’t an appropriate treatment for everyone with type 2 diabetes and achieving the desired result still entails lifestyle changes.

    “The surgery is an effective option for obese people with type 2 diabetes, but it’s a very big step,” said Dr. Michael Williams, an endocrinologist affiliated with the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. “It allows them to lose a huge amount of weight and mimics what happens when people make lifestyle changes. But, the improvement in glucose control is far more than we’d expect just from the weight loss.”

    Almost 26 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Being overweight is a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes, but not everyone who has the disease is overweight. Type 2 occurs when the body stops using the hormone insulin effectively. Insulin helps glucose enter the body’s cells to provide energy.

    Lifestyle changes, such as losing 5 to 10 percent of body weight and exercising regularly, are often the first treatments suggested. Many people find it difficult to make permanent lifestyle changes on their own, however. Oral medications are also available, but these often fail to control type 2 diabetes adequately. Injected insulin can also be given as a treatment.

    Surgeons first noted that gastric bypass surgeries had an effect on blood sugar control more than 50 years ago, according to a review article in a recent issue of The Lancet. At that time, though, weight-loss surgeries were significantly riskier for the patient. But as techniques in bariatric surgery improved and the surgical complication rates came down, experts began to re-examine the effect the surgery was having on type 2 diabetes.

    In 2003, a study in the Annals of Surgery reported that 83 percent of people with type 2 diabetes who underwent the weight-loss surgery known as Roux-en-Y gastric bypass saw a resolution of their diabetes after surgery. That means they no longer needed to take oral medications or insulin in most cases.

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