Those who want a non-drug treatment for early stages of alcoholism recovery could put on a pair of running shoes and go out for a run. A recent study published in the January 2014 issue of Journal of Substance Abuse and Treatment found that regular aerobic exercise does curb alcohol dependence and cravings among those who are in the early stages of recovery.
Dr. Richard Brown, a psychologist at Brown University, and his colleagues performed the 12-week randomized study with 48 subjects. Twenty five of the subjects performed group aerobic exercises once a week while the remainder had “brief advice to exercise intervention,” which involved discussions, motivation, or negotiation to influence the subjects to exercise instead of taking a drink. During the study, the researchers used standard interviews and questionnaires to evaluate each person’s drinking habits. They were looking for any changes in the amount of alcohol consumed. Brown and his colleagues found that those who were in the exercise group had significantly less drinks than those in the brief-advice group.
According to The Brown Daily Herald, Brown said that there is a lack of scientific literature that examines exercise treatment with alcoholism, which prompted him to conduct this study. He set up a gym inside Butler Hospital and brought in the necessary exercise equipment and a sound system to simulate a gym. The subjects who were in the exercise group experienced much positiveness from the exercise effects on their mental health. Some said that the workout regimen “gave structure to their lives” that they didn’t have before, according to Brown. The researchers concluded that most of the subjects in the exercise group will most likely continue to exercise regularly, substituting alcohol with working out.
Larger studies of exercise’s effect on alcoholism is currently being finished. Researchers from the University of Denmark recruited 300 subjects who were put into three experimental groups: No exercise, exercise alone and exercise in a group. All subjects received standard alcoholism treatment, including family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. The researchers will examine whether exercising alone or in a group affects the alcoholism treatment. The year-long study should be completed by May 1, 2014.
So why does exercise curb alcohol cravings and consumption? One possible explanation is the circadian rhythm, which is the biological clock in mammals that influences eating, sleeping, and mating behavior. A 2010 study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research examined that alcoholism isn’t about “character flaws and as failures of willpower,” and that it may have biological underlying of alcohol abuse and addiction.
Alcoholism can disrupt “both the timing and consolidation of daily circadian rhythms,” which is driven by the brain. According to J. David Glass, professor of biological sciences at Kent State University who was the co-author of this study, alcoholism can make a person go to bed too early or too late, not get a full night’s sleep and have unusual eating times such as overeating at night and very little in the day. It could lead to a cycle of drinking because alcoholics could use alcohol as an excuse to fall asleep easier, which could lead to greater alcohol consumption.
To test his theory, Glass and his team used live hamsters for the experiment. They found that the animals that ran on the hamster wheel more consumed less alcohol, while those that did not exercise as much had greater cravings and consumption of alcohol. Glass said that exercise could very be likely a substitute for alcohol and drug treatments. Exercise changes the brain’s chemical environment in a way that is similar to alcohol, Glass stated. The brain releases a neural chemical called dopamine when the organism anticipates a reward, including food, sex, alcohol and exercise. By substituting one reward for another, alcoholism can be helped.
Based on the budding evidence and research, aerobic exercise is most likely an alternative to drug treatment and should be complemented with standard therapies. Whether other forms of exercise, such as strength and power conditioning, dance and yoga, could curb alcohol cravings, future studies might find similar benefits as well.
By Nick Ng