The Body and Brain on Substances (Drugs and Alcohol)

“Health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Social health is considered a dynamic balance between opportunities and limitations; the constant changes in life, society, and the environment bring endless restrictions and challenge people’s ability to adapt to this state.”

Over timethe use of substances changes the brain’s ability to communicate successfully with the neurotransmitters in the brain and the brain’s ability to send messages to the body (cells, muscles, organs, nerves, etc.). While the complexity of the function of addiction, the brain, and the body requires extensive discussion, this blog will focus on the changes that occur physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially, and how exercise can stop cravings, improve mood, and many other positive personal transformations.

When a person consumes drugs, the neurotransmitters release a chemical known as dopamine. “Addictive drugs…can release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards do….” The irony is that while the first experience or the first few experiences of drug use will produce an intense sense of pleasure, the neuro receptors become overwhelmed within a short time. “The brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors….” In time, the body requires more and more drugs to chase the initial feeling. The memory of the sensation is stored, and the body seeks to find the source of the good feeling–the drugs/alcohol. This seeking of a drug(s) is known as cravings. Other aspects of brain function associated with dopamine that are disrupted by drug and alcohol use include learning, stress, decision-making, and self-control. Substance abuse negatively impacts these cognitive functions. Environmental and emotional cues can set off cravings even when a person has stopped using substances. These cravings can lead to relapse if the sober person has not done the work of recovery.

How Can a Variety of Exercise Formats Help People in Recovery?

There is not one approach to recovery that works for everyone. Moving through detox, getting into treatment, and maintaining sobriety requires an individualized plan. Several therapeutic approaches may be used during treatment and aftercare. Exercise is one element of a comprehensive drug/alcohol treatment approach among the many modalities employed. It complements therapies, life-skills training, mental health education, and medication management. This approach provides the recovering substance abuser with several pathways to relearn and learn new behaviors.

Exercise has been studied for several years, both on animals and humans. In rats, the addicted animals who are provided exercise will reduce the number of self-administered drug doses. In humans, it is known to be effective in treating mood disorders, including those depressive disorders that have been medication resistant.

For the recovering addict, finding new activities that replace drugs and alcohol and replace people, places, and things associated with substance use is imperative.

Benefits of Exercise During SUD Treatment and After

Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, releases natural dopamine in the brain. The aftereffects of the natural release of dopamine last longer. It improves blood sugar regulation, reduces the risk of heart disease, and weight management while also improving cognitive functions (including mental abilities, learning, reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making, and attention).

Exercise helps people feel part of a community: group running, weight-lifting sessions, yoga, and other forms of exercise that people tend to do in groups. The feeling “part of” helps combat the tendency to isolate from people and/or feelings developed during substance abuse.

Healthy habits are necessary for maintaining sobriety and mental health. Exercise provides structure and discipline to a person’s life and builds self-esteem. Because of the habit formed through regular exercise, including hiking, biking, and distance swimming, a recovering addict will develop a routine that will translate into the body’s desire to exercise.

Yoga is a mind-body exercise that focuses on breathing, being present, and strength building, and is a form of meditation. The ability to quiet the mind and focus on the here and now benefits everyone. It is part of what is now known as mindfulness.

According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise helps depression and anxiety:

  • It releases feel-good endorphins (chemicals that enhance a sense of well-being
  • Distracts the mind from worries and negative thought
  • Builds confidence in meeting goals
  • Improves appearance
  • Increases social interaction (even greeting someone on a walk or run, smiling at someone in the gym makes for human connections)
  • Improves coping mechanisms (replaces the urge to use drugs and alcohol to deal with stress)
  • Other forms of movement, such as gardening and washing your car, can also improve mood)

Other studies demonstrate that being in nature (regardless of whether that is a city park, a forest trail, the beach, or a garden) profoundly impacts our emotional, psychological, and physical health. “Research shows that people who are more connected with nature are usually happier in life and more likely to report feeling their lives are worthwhile. Nature can generate many positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, and creativity, and can facilitate concentration.” Being in nature, such as in a meditative garden environment, has also been proven to help people suffering from PTSD.

The involvement in exercise, regardless of the type of exercise, provides the recovering person with the opportunity to learn new behaviors, reduce stress, improve sleep, boost self-control, reduces symptoms of withdrawal, improve nutrition, increase energy and motivation, and improve quality of life.

The profound impact of exercise on a person’s well-being is acute (immediate) and long-term. One study found that “engaging in a physical activity program during treatment can contribute to reduced dropout rates, thereby increasing the success rate of therapy.”

Treatment for SUD Works

Treatment for SUD works if one receives the appropriate treatment plan. Regular treatment plan evaluations addressing all issues that may arise during the treatment process is considered best practice. Best practices include attending a licensed facility that utilizes the expertise of addiction physicians, nurses, and certified supporting staff. Studies have demonstrated that an addict who participates in exercise therapy during treatment is more likely to complete the treatment and stay sober.

If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction to drugs/alcohol, call now to speak with a trained staff member. Our caring staff will help answer all your questions and guide you to the best treatment options for your needs.