Recent research findings are showing promising results for people who have damaged their brains by drinking too much. The research was inspired by other studies that found aerobic exercise could have a positive impact on the brains of people as they age. Some of the damage caused by drinking is similar to the damage that occurs over time as part of the aging process. If exercise helps to slow down and repair aging damage, it should be able to help with damage caused by drinking.
Alcohol and the Brain
Alcohol has an immediate effect on the brain when consumed. It causes an increase or decrease in certain brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters. Some of these changes are responsible for the sluggishness and clumsiness that people experience when drinking. Another neurotransmitter, dopamine, is increased when you drink. Dopamine is what gives you a sensation of pleasure and is why drinking feels good. When you drink, different regions of the brain are affected. In the cerebral cortex, alcohol acts to make you feel less inhibited. In the cerebellum, it impairs your balance and coordination. In the medulla, alcohol lowers your body’s temperature, slows your breathing, and makes you feel sleepy. The immediate effects of alcohol on the brain are relieved when your body has metabolized and eliminated it. However, there are cumulative effects of drinking. Over time, drinking causes memory loss. This is especially true in younger drinkers. Other long-term effects of drinking too much include impairments in visual learning, shrinking of the size of the brain, and damage to white matter. This is the part of the brain that is a part of learning, functioning, and signaling between its different parts.
Exercise Repairs Damage
Recent research conducted by professors and students at the University of Colorado at Boulder looked into using exercise to slow and reverse damage caused by excessive drinking. Research has long shown that people who get regular exercise as they age have better functioning brains than those who do not. One important reason is that exercise helps to keep blood vessels healthy. Without exercise, blood vessels can become damaged by high blood pressure and too much cholesterol in the bloodstream. Exercise might also help slow and reverse brain damage and the risk of age-related brain disorders, like Alzheimer’s, because it protects white matter. The nerves that make up white matter and that are so important to signaling in the brain decline in health and get damaged during the aging process, and also as a result of heavy drinking. The recent research looked at the latter cause and tried to determine if exercise could help long-time drinkers recover some brain function. The researchers used 60 volunteer participants for the study, between the ages of 21 and 55. They were selected from a database that was tracking nicotine and alcohol use. The volunteers were scanned to create a brain image that showed the volume of white matter each had. They also answered a series of questions about how they use alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs and how often they exercised. To find any possible connections between white matter, exercise, and drinking, the researchers created a model linking all of the data collected from the participants. The results were encouraging. It showed that among the volunteers who were heavy drinkers, those who got regular exercise had more intact white matter. Those who did not get much exercise had less white matter and more damage. “What our data suggest is that beyond just giving people a different outlet for cravings or urges for alcohol, exercise might also help to repair the damage that may have been done to the brain,” said study co-author and CU-Boulder psychology and neuroscience professors Angela Bryan. “It might even be a more promising treatment approach for alcohol problems because it is both a behavioral treatment and a treatment that has the potential to make the brain more healthy. The healthier the brain is, the more likely a person with alcohol issues is to recover.”
The Promise of Exercise
While the results of the study are exciting and encouraging, it is still early research. It does not prove that exercise can correct existing damage. It does, however, seem to show that it might be a real possibility. The researchers are also quick to point out that getting regular exercise is not an excuse to be a heavy drinker. Although drinkers who get exercise may be better off than those who do not, drinking heavily is still bad for all aspects of a person’s health. Further research could help doctors learn more about how to help problem drinkers. More detailed investigations might be able to prove that exercise really does reverse damage. These findings could lead to exercise becoming a regular part of treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. In addition to the effect on brain damage, exercise has many other positive health benefits and could help people who are in recovery.