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It has long been known that intensive therapy that speaks to the needs of the individual is a key part of recovery from addiction, no matter what the drug of choice. Augmented by treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders, holistic treatment, and peer support, therapeutic care can create the foundation for a healthy life in recovery.
A new study has recently found that for those who are working to overcome a dependence on crystal meth, exercise in combination with therapy may prove to be an effective treatment combination. The small study was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology and found that, because exercise increases the number of dopamine (a “feel-good” chemical) receptors in the brain, it can serve to decrease the experience of cravings. With fewer cravings, lower stress, and a better mood thanks to regular exercise, it makes sense that someone would be better able to field challenges as they arise and manage triggers without relapse, focusing instead on the business of building a new life.
Why is this phenomenon specific to those who used crystal meth in addiction? It may not be, but methamphetamine use triggers a rush of dopamine that creates the high, and regular use can diminish the number of dopamine receptors in the brain. It stands to reason that making use of exercise to somewhat mimic that chemical reaction naturally and healthfully (albeit on a lower scale), while also increasing the number of dopamine receptors in the brain, may serve to help the person become grounded in recovery.
Some studies have found that long-term use of methamphetamine has caused irreversible damage to cognitive function that includes a decreased ability to manage impulse control and make sound, healthy decisions. Other studies have found that, though the number of dopamine receptors in the brain decrease, they do increase slowly over time after cessation of use of the drug – but the rate can vary significantly from person to person.
According to UPI, the study lasted eight weeks and included 19 participants in recovery from methamphetamine dependence who were taking part in behavioral therapy in an effort to better understand and manage their addictions. Ten of these participants walked or jogged for an hour on a treadmill three times a week and took part in resistance training for the duration of the study. The remaining participants did not exercise but were provided with health education training.
PET scans were used to identify the number of dopamine receptors in the participants’ brains. It was found that the group that received health education training had a 4 percent increase in dopamine receptors while the group that exercised had a 15 percent increase in that time period.
Edythe London of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA was lead researcher on the study. In a news release, London said: “Although this is a small study, it’s a very encouraging finding. The results demonstrate that methamphetamine-associated damages to the dopamine system of the brain are reversible in human subjects, and that recovery of the dopamine system after chronic drug use can be facilitated with exercise training.”
Everyone is different, both in their addictions and in their recoveries. While it is exciting to gain scientific insight into different treatments and therapies that may be effective in treating addiction, it is important to remember that there is no magic bullet.
That is, exercise, while proven helpful in the treatment of crystal meth addiction, is not an entire treatment unto itself. All participants in the study were also taking part in behavioral therapy and had support in remaining clean and sober.
Additionally, it is important to remember that people will experience specific therapies and treatments differently. One person may take to a new exercise regimen, finding it rejuvenating and a welcome new focus, while another person may dread spending an hour a day in physical activity of any kind. Does that mean that the person who is not interested in exercise or who exercises minimally will not reap the benefits of recovery? Not at all. It just means that treatment should be tailored to meet the unique needs and personality of the individual. There is no “cookie-cutter” answer.
Of course, exercise and other positive lifestyle changes are excellent ideas in recovery, no matter what the drug of choice or who the person is. All of us are carbon-based life forms and, as such, will benefit from physical activity – there’s no way around it. Whether you choose to take a walk whenever the mood strikes or get up at dawn to run five miles come rain or shine, it will benefit you to take an active interest in trying to incorporate some level of exercise, both cardio and weight-bearing exercise, into your weekly schedule.
Similarly, there are other positive lifestyle changes that will help you to feel better both mentally and physically, thus increasing your ability to manage stressors that may otherwise add up to relapse. These include:
Overdoing it in any one area can be detrimental and cause problems of its own, but making little steps in each of these areas can help you to feel stronger in your sobriety.