The Role of Exercise in Alcohol Use Disorders Treatment
Exercise can play a key supplementary role in treating alcohol use disorders
I’m forever going on about the health benefits of exercise. They are many, and they are profound. You will likely live a longer, happier, more energetic life by living an active lifestyle.
Your physical health will improve a great deal. Your mental health will be much better, too, with less anxiety, heightened mood, more confidence, and the energy you need to cope with life’s stresses.
Cognitive function should also improve. More blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Exercise can have regenerative effects on brain tissue, nerves, and synapses. It can stimulate new growth and keep degeneration at bay (think of things like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s).
Your chance of suffering from pretty much every disease going will be decreased if you get just 20-30 minutes of exercise every day. This includes some of the world’s biggest killers. Your risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, obesity, and myriad types of cancer will all drop. You will be out of the danger zone for all of them.
Exercise is also great for those going through recovery. Simply browse some of my other articles on Recoverlution for a taste of what it can do for you if you are in the process of overcoming addiction.
AUDs in particular
I want to be more specific today, however. I want to take a bit of a deep dive into a couple of meta-analyses from 2015-16. They specifically outline some of the benefits that regular exercise can have for treating Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs)
AUDs are basically the misuse use of alcohol. They are often associated with alcohol addiction.
The results, whilst tentative, are very promising. They seem to suggest that most of the negatives we see in people overcoming AUDs can be mitigated or even overcome by including exercise in a comprehensive recovery plan.
Exercise and alcohol use disorders
Exercise can be a great tool in overcoming addiction and treating alcohol use disorders. AUDs bring about a great many health concerns. These can be both physical and psychological.
A 2016 meta-study looking at exercise use in the treatment of AUDs between 1970 and 2015 has shown how it can be of great benefit to those looking to heal and grow after addiction.
The problem: why exercise is necessary in treating alcohol use disorders
Excessive alcohol use is one of the leading risk factors for disease. Only tobacco and high blood pressure having a greater influence. Diseases it can lead to include brain damage, alcoholic liver disease, peripheral neuropathy, and nutritional and metabolic disorders. It can also increase impulsivity, which can bring its own problems.
However, there are plenty of proposed treatment models for AUDs. There is a lot of help that anyone suffering from AUDs can benefit from. Exercise is one of the best forms of help going.
The study: exercise and alcohol use disorders
The study, by Manthou et al (2016), analysed the potential psychological and physiological mechanisms underpinning exercise and their use in treating AUDs across a range of academic literature. In particular, they highlighted the role of β-endorphin and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in AUDs, as well as the association between physical exercise and desire for alcohol.
There were only 11 studies found between 1970 and 2015 that dealt with the subject. Of these, six concluded that exercise may have a positive impact on alcohol consumption and abstinence rates. One of studies showed that a single training session can affect endogenous opioids, which might be associated with drinking desire (craving for alcohol).
Another 3 studies showed that those suffering with AUDs react differently to exercise than those not suffering with AUDs.
Though there wasn’t much literature to go on, the studies reviewed seemed to suggest that exercise might be a great addition to any treatment plan for AUDs. Of course, those suffering with an active alcohol use disorder would need to perform exercise under medical supervision. They should only do so if they have been approved for hard exercise by their medical doctor.
However, as long as they able to join in, exercise can be a great tool in treating alcohol use disorders.
The benefits of exercise to those recovering from alcohol use disorders
There are a great many benefits of exercise for those recovering from alcohol use disorders.
Another study (Halgren et al, 2017) highlights some of these positive effects.
Depression, exercise, and alcohol use disorders
Treatment for depression is a big part of exercise’s efficacy in treating problematic alcohol use. Depression is often an underlying factor for substance abuse. It is at least often comorbid. We know that exercise is great for alleviating depression. It can elevate your mood, increasing the amount of endorphins and adrenaline your body releases.
The act of exercising is also very positive and empowering. This can contribute to a greater feeling of happiness and wellbeing. It can often lend structure to your life, too, which is fundamental to treating depression.
Inflammation also matters. Excessive alcohol consumption is generally associated with elevated pro-inflammatory markers. Regular exercise can undo this, reducing systemic inflammation in AUD patients. This in turn can lead to improved mood, decreased anxiety levels, and improved stress-reactivity.
Your cognitive and neural health
Neuroimaging studies are also beginning to show the role of exercise in the brain’s reward centres. The reward centres commonly activated by substance misuse are also activated by exercise. Exercise can scratch the itch you may feel as you go through recovery.
In fact, exercise can increase the concentration of neurotransmitters in your brain. In turn, this will contribute to exercise-induced rewards. It may even evoke hippocampal neurogenesis. This a process that positively affects both stress-related disorders and alcohol dependence.
Cognitive functioning and AUDs
AUDs will generally cause significant damage across multiple cognitive functions. These include working memory, long term memory, processing speed, visuospatial ability, executive functioning, learning, and verbal fluency.
The mechanisms linking AUDs to this cognitive damage aren’t fully understood. However, one theory is that the prefrontal cortex is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. There is some neuroimaging evidence to support this idea. It shows decreased metabolic rates in prefrontal regions that go hand-in-hand with the kind of executive function impairments we are talking about.
Studies have also shown a link between improved, healthy cognitive function and regular exercise. This is true of all age ranges and health statuses. Though this relationship hasn’t been properly examined with respect to AUDs, there is a strong working theory that exercise can help to undo some of the damage caused by excessive drinking. It may at least be able to preserve good health after any damage is taken into account.
Overcoming alcohol use disorder with exercise
As I have written about elsewhere, exercise is a good tool for anybody looking to overcome addiction. In brief, it gives you a lot of what you need, when you need it, as you tread the path of recovery.
Exercise and addiction recovery
This is true of any form of addiction recovery. The feel good nature involved in exercise, the release in endorphins, the rewiring of the reward centres, the motivation, the pride, the improved energy… these are all necessary to anyone on any kind of hard path and there are few paths harder than that of addiction recovery.
It can be hard to stay on track during recovery. Finding a routine outside of feeding your addictions can be hard. Finding a social scene and a safe space to exist away from your addictive behaviours can seem almost impossible, leaving you feeling alienated and alone.
Exercise can change this. Gyms are safe spaces. Exercise classes are safe spaces. You can meet like-minded people trying to live their best, healthiest lives, whilst sticking to a regime and timetable that is healthy rather than ruinous.
Addiction also often robs you of your health in some way or another. This can be a large or small thing. However, nobody comes through it unscathed. As we have seen above, and as I have written extensively elsewhere, exercise can undo a lot of the damage done through addiction. It can help to take you out of the risk zones of most chronic diseases, most of which addiction will leave you open to.
How Exercise Supplements Alcohol Use recovery
We have looked at some very specific ways in which exercise can help in treating alcohol use disorders. The research is tentative yet promising. Exercise can help to undo a lot of the damage done by AUDs. It can help you to overcome your alcohol dependency and work out a better way to live.
However, do note that it should only ever be a supplementary form of treatment. Exercise alone cannot give you everything you need to overcome your addiction and repair your health. You will likely need some form of medical intervention. Therapy or counselling and a daily recovery programme will also be a very good idea. At all times, you should be working in conjunction with your healthcare provider. They will be able to help you to construct a holistic program of healing and recovery.
With this in place, though, exercise comes into its own. It is a peerless supplement to any recovery program. The benefits are profound. The list of known benefits is growing all the time, and we’re starting to work out why it is so good. In the studies I have looked at today, we see the beginnings of a broad view of exercise and its ability to help in treating alcohol use disorders.
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Author - James