Addiction is a huge problem. Studies suggest almost 5% to 15% of people were dependent on alcohol, and between 5% to 20% on other illicit drugs.
When people think of stopping a bad habit or quitting an addictive substance very few of them consider exercise or their diet. Despite the fact that both could affect their success. This applies to alcohol or any other recreational drug.
But, both exercise and nutritional programs have been shown to be very useful in helping protect against the use of harmful and addictive substances. This includes alcohol and other prominent drugs such as cocaine and opioids.
It also helps maintain abstinence or even reduce some side effects of rehab programs.
This is thought to be due to many different mechanisms put in motion by exercise and nutrients. These include changes in chemical balances in the brain. It can also include brain matter growth and regeneration of nerve cells.
As well as these physical benefits, social and psychological benefits are also provided. Increased social support, mood, well-being provided by exercise could all play major roles.
But, exercise and good nutrition won’t serve as a rehabilitation program on its own.
But, so far, research has shown that it may help a lot in improving the effectiveness, both short and long term, in rehab. This improvement is shown in various substances. These include alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, opiates, and amphetamines.
Below, we take a look at the mechanisms behind addiction. We also look at how exercise and nutrition can help reduce substance use.
This is alongside how it can help improve recovery and long-term abstinence. I also look at the type of exercise or foods are most beneficial in helping kick bad habits.
Addiction: The Physical Element
One of the reasons exercise and nutrition can help is in the powerful effect both can have in maintaining brain and nervous system health.
There is already a lot of research showing that exercise and nutrients can increase brain matter growth. These nutrients include like Omega 3 fats, vitamins, and minerals. These nutrients may also protect against mental illness and improve behavioral problems.
Despite this, one possible reason for the lack of diet and exercise programs into traditional rehab programs is many think addiction is a psychological problem.
But, recent research looking at the changes in brain chemistry and physiology shows that substance abuse and withdrawal involve massive and long-term changes in certain protein levels in the brain, particularly in areas which control stress, panic, motivation, mood, and memory.
So, when considering the process of addiction, it is important to note that this is a very physical issue. This is alongside a social or psychological one.
It is the same above areas of the brain that are also affected by exercise and certain nutrients.
This then forms the basis for how these practices could help decrease substance abuse. It also suggests how it could improve sobriety, or increase success in rehab.
Exercise and Sobriety
It is well known by people who have had problems with substance abuse, and general populations that exercise can provide all sorts of health benefits. These are both physical and psychological in nature.
Despite this, less than half of smoking or alcohol dependent individuals do it. They also aren't prescribed it when seeking recovery.
This a significant issue. There has been an association between increased exercise and decreased nicotine dependence. In fact, most research finds that vigorous exercise improves the success rate of smoking recovery programs.
Many recovering addicts also found it useful in relieving stress and tension. It also helped improve mood and motivation.
These same benefits are found with alcohol recovery. Exercise improves both the success of the initial recovery and increases abstinence.
There has also been some early research linking exercise and increased abstinence and cessation of stimulant drug use in college students. These include cocaine or amphetamines.
Exercise type, intensity, and frequency
High-intensity aerobic exercise has been looked at the most. Specifically, circuit or interval training for 30-40 minutes, three times per week.
But strength training may be beneficial as well. Unfortunately, there has been tiny amount if any, research examining this.
Either way, exercise has shown to offer a cheap, easy and efficient way to help improve prevent substance use. It can also help improve initial recovery and life-long abstinence.
Nutrition and Sobriety
As stated above, the food we eat can also have a powerful effect on our mental health and mood. From our hormone levels to the actual structure and growth of individual cells in our brain, it has a big impact.
This can affect addiction recovery. Scientists found that mood and comfort were lower in recovering drug addicts when with lower carbohydrates in their diet.
This was likely due to the effect carbohydrates have in serotonin. This is a hormone known for causing relaxation and happiness and is affected by drug use.
Considering this, recovering addicts may be best served to keep carbohydrates high. They might also benefit from slow-releasing sugars such as whole wheat and grains. This could keep serotonin levels steady and improve mood swings in recovery.
But, it's also important to note the important role that healthy fats like omega-3 fats could have in improving sobriety.
Omega-3 fats have been shown to increase brain growth factors. These are usually at a decreased level in current or previous addicts and contribute to the adverse effects of withdrawal. These all threaten long-term recovery and abstinence.
Abrantes, A. M., Battle, C. L., Strong, D. R., Ing, E., Dubreuil, M. E., Gordon, A., & Brown, R. A. (2011). Exercise preferences of patients in substance abuse treatment. Mental health and physical activity, 4(2), 79-87.
Amdahl, T. (2016). Benefits of Exercise for Individuals in Remission from Substance Use Disorders.
Beltz, B. S., Tlusty, M. F., Benton, J. L., & Sandeman, D. C. (2007). Omega-3 fatty acids upregulate adult neurogenesis. Neuroscience letters, 415(2), 154-158.
Berke, J. D., & Hyman, S. E. (2000). Addiction, dopamine, and the molecular mechanisms of memory. Neuron, 25(3), 515-532.
Brown, R. A., Abrantes, A. M., Read, J. P., Marcus, B. H., Jakicic, J., Strong, D. R., ... & Dubreuil, M. E. (2009). Aerobic Exercise for Alcohol Recovery Rationale, Program Description, and Preliminary Findings. Behavior modification, 33(2), 220-249.
Cunningham, P. M. (2016). The Use of Sobriety Nutritional Therapy in the Treatment of Opioid Addiction. Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy,7(3).
Moorhouse, M., Loh, E., Lockett, D., Grymala, J., Chudzik, G., & Wilson, A. (2000). Carbohydrate Craving by Alcohol‐Dependent Men During Sobriety: Relationship to Nutrition and Serotonergic Function. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 24(5), 635-643.
Nestler, E. J., & Aghajanian, G. K. (1997). Molecular and cellular basis of addiction. Science, 278(5335), 58-63.
Read, J. P., & Brown, R. A. (2003). The role of physical exercise in alcoholism treatment and recovery. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34(1), 49.
Sussman, S., Lisha, N., & Griffiths, M. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: a problem of the majority or the minority?. Evaluation & the health professions, 34(1), 3-56.
Wu, A., Ying, Z., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2004). Dietary omega-3 fatty acids normalize BDNF levels, reduce oxidative damage, and counteract learning disability after traumatic brain injury in rats. Journal of neurotrauma, 21(10), 1457-1467.