This post was originally published on May 24, 2016.
Methamphetamine addicts may be able to go the distance in their recovery—literally—by adding exercise to their weekly routines. According to a new study conducted by UCLA researchers, addicts curbed their drug cravings through walking, jogging and resistance training. By combining exercise with drug education, those who participated in the study were able to stay on the road to recovery. The study itself focused on how exercise helps addicts by creating long-term changes in the brain, which help break the cycle of dangerous habits.
It’s All in Your Head
UCLA’s press release on the study explains that exercise, coupled with education, “had a 15 percent increase in the number of dopamine receptors in the brain.” Dopamine, of course, is the main culprit whenever it comes to addiction. Drugs like meth trigger a flood of dopamine, which overpower the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. UCLA researchers contend that exercise helps the brain to add brand-new dopamine receptors which, in effect, means that exercise can re-wire the way addicts think and act.
An incredibly powerful stimulant, methamphetamine wreaks havoc on the body’s central nervous system. The drug’s effects last anywhere from six to eight hours, causing euphoria and that all-too-elusive sense of well-being. Meth also burns out dopamine receptors the more often it is used. In other words, just like any drug, the more you take it, the more you need to take to produce the same effect. One article on the study observed that while “receptors can recover, how much depends on how long a person has used methamphetamines, with chronic use potentially causing longer-lasting problems with judgment and self-control—which makes abstaining from the drug even more difficult for longtime users.”
What the Study Revealed
The eight-week study was conducted on 19 participants, which randomly divided people into two separate groups. One group received an exercise regimen in addition to drug counseling and education, while the other group only received education. Each participant was given a PET scan before and after the study. Otherwise known as positron emission tomography scans, PET scans use small traces of radioactive drugs that help screen for heart and brain conditions. The scans, which measure the difference between healthy and diseased organs and tissues, “looked at dopamine receptors in the striatum, a part of the forebrain and a critical component of the reward system.”
When the study started, there was no measurable difference in the number of receptors between the two groups. For the entire length of the study, participants were tasked with walking or jogging on a treadmill three times weekly. Resistance training (weight machines, free weights, or both) was also used. In the end, the group that just received education saw only a 4 percent increase in dopamine receptors. According to the study’s director, Dr. Edythe London, more studies will be necessary to see exercise’s impact on dopamine receptors. “Although this is a small study, it’s a very encouraging finding,” Dr. London said. “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.” The study showed that exercise had the same effect as methamphetamine did, with one notable exception: as dopamine levels went up, compulsive behavior went down.
The press release went on to say that the differences between both groups wasn’t limited to one section of the striatum. “We know that deficits in the striatal dopamine system are hallmark features of substance-use disorders and are caused by molecular adaptions to repeated drug exposure and, likely, also reflect a genetic predisposition,” Dr. London said. While the study confirmed what researchers already knew about dopamine receptors, further research will help refine treatment strategies and techniques.
Getting Up to Speed
Near the end of my drinking career, I tried over and over to get into exercise. In my blurriest state of mind, I knew it would help. I even hired a personal trainer. I quickly discovered you can’t have it both ways when it comes to regularly drinking vodka and trying to keep physically fit, though. I can’t fully describe what it’s like to wake up early in the morning, bleary-eyed after a night of heavy drinking, to do bear crawls down a gym hallway. Actually, I can describe it: it’s absolute hell. One time, I lurched straight into the women’s restroom, mid-bear crawl, and dry-heaved into the toilet. When I finally decided to get sober, exercise got me on the right track. I started small and I bought a bicycle. Then, I graduated to jogging around the block. Soon enough, I was doing pretty hard cardio and eventually completed a Tough Mudder. I’m sure there are countless physically fit alcoholics out there but I’m certainly not designed to be one of them. With me, be it drinking or recovery, it’s all or nothing.
Exercise gave me a sense of purpose and well-being that alcohol couldn’t compete with. The “runner’s high” might perform the same trick for meth addicts. In fact, doctors are increasingly prescribing exercise as medication, going so far as to suggest hitting the gym instead of the pharmacy. That’s a trend that would not only help stem the addiction epidemic but revise conventional wisdom around treatment. As an article from the American Council on Science and Health noted, “intervention approaches need to be tailored to the individual and will vary depending on the severity of addiction.” With more studies like UCLA’s, researchers will be able to zero in on what specific exercise routines—intensity level, type, length of time—work best and customize them for addiction recovery. The study makes one thing very clear: we’re all chemically wired the same way. In fact, understanding how exercise impacts our brains will go a long way in helping addicts find a quicker, more effective route to recovery. It’s one thing to outrun a bad habit—it’s another thing altogether to stay miles ahead of your demons.
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