Science has made significant strides in understanding questions surrounding dependency disorders and their impact on the brain. Here we take a look at how substance dependency affects the brain and how to get on the path to recovery and stay on it.
How Misused Substances Exploit the Brain’s Reward System
When a person goes through a pleasurable experience, the reward system in our brain responds to it by releasing dopamine into the nucleus accumbens, also known as the brain’s pleasure centre.
This mechanism is advantageous; it ensures that we seek out essential things for survival, such as food and social interaction. However, addictive substances exploit this system by causing a dopamine rush in the nucleus accumbens, far exceeding the levels associated with natural rewards.
Over time, drug abuse leads to diminished rewards as the brain develops tolerance to dopamine’s effects. As a result, people who suffer from addiction require higher doses to achieve the desired outcomes, and their craving for the substance intensifies.
The Parallels Between Substance Dependency Disorder and Other Chronic Diseases
By definition, a disease is a condition that alters how an organ operates. Dependency disorders function, therefore, similarly to other diseases.
Addiction is similar to other chronic diseases in the following ways:
Preventability: Addiction, like other chronic conditions, can be prevented with decreasing risk factors while increasing protective factors as well as timely intervention.
Treatability: People suffering from addiction can find a path to recovery with appropriate treatment.
Biological Changes: Both addiction and chronic diseases cause changes in the biology of affected organs.
Long-lasting Impact: If left untreated, addiction can persist throughout a person’s lifetime.
Rewiring the Brain After Dependency
The brain continuously generates new cells throughout our lives and forms brand-new neural pathways. This capacity for change, known as neuroplasticity, enables the brain to
reorganise and grow after addiction.
However, the path to healing and repairing the human brain takes time. The length and complexity of the process vary depending on the substances used and, of course, the extent of the damage.
Sobriety is the first step of the healing journey. Thankfully, many treatment options are available to help a person cut back or stop substance use.
Detoxification from alcohol or other drugs typically takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on factors such as the type of substances used, the frequency and duration of usage, the patient’s physical and psychological health, and the chosen withdrawal method.
Medications are available to support the detoxification and withdrawal process for specific substances.
Physical Exercise And Neuroplasticity
A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in August 2019 found that physical exercise is an effective and promising additional therapeutic tool for rewiring the brain after prolonged substance abuse. The study was conducted by a team of Brazilian researchers and reviewed the effects of exercise on individuals struggling with addiction.
The researchers found that just like physical exercise helps treat other medical conditions, it can also help those recovering from substance dependency issues, as aerobic exercise promotes neuroplasticity. The benefits of exercise manifest in brain areas associated with executive control, inhibiting drug-seeking behaviour, reducing impulsivity, and influencing decisions concerning drug consumption.
How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Can Help
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is highly effective in producing the positive aspects of neuroplasticity and rewiring the brain after addiction. In a June 2020 post on the Harvard Health blog, Maria Mavrikaki, PhD, described CBT as a learning-based therapeutic intervention that harnesses the power of neuroplasticity.
During CBT sessions, patients learn to replace negative thoughts and behaviour patterns with more constructive ways of thinking and acting. CBT reinforces these beneficial changes by capitalising on the brain’s capacity to rewire when exposed to appropriate stimuli.
According to Dr Mavrikaki, neuroplasticity enables us to learn new skills and reshape our brains positively. Just as drug addiction can induce adverse changes in the brain, therapy-driven skills adoption can lead to the development of new, healthier habits that support long-term well-being.
Rewiring the Brain is Possible
In conclusion, rewiring the brain from addiction is a transformative undertaking that relies on the incredible ability of the central nervous system to heal and adapt through neuroplasticity. The duration of this rewiring journey varies for each individual, depending on the extent of damage and the treatment received. Physical exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy offer hope as effective strategies for facilitating recovery.
As science continues to unlock the unknowns around neuroplasticity, new possibilities for treating addiction may emerge, offering even brighter prospects for those seeking to break free from dependencies.
Helping The Brain Heal
To facilitate recovery and improve brain health and neuroplasticity after substance use, individuals can adopt the following practices:
- Regular exercise can enhance the size of the hippocampus, a brain region susceptible to substance use. Exercise is also advantageous for mental and physical well-being.
- Seeking help from a licenced therapist offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
- Practising mindfulness techniques, like meditation, to fortify brain circuits damaged by substance use.
- Maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet to counteract vitamin and mineral deficiencies often associated with substance use.
- Ensuring regular, sufficient sleep, as the brain uses this time to flush out toxins.
- Establishing good sleep habits can significantly aid in brain recovery.
The journey to recovery from substance dependence takes time, patience, and support, but assistance is readily available for those seeking it.
The brain’s capacity to heal and adapt after alcohol and other drug use is truly remarkable. People recovering from substance dependency can help their brains regain health and resilience by using regular exercise, mindfulness practices, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep as tools.
Remember, seeking support and assistance is vital to a successful recovery journey.
How White River Manor Can Help
At White River Manor, we offer our guests individualised programs and luxury individual care. In collaboration with the client, our team of highly qualified therapists, medical professionals, and dependency specialists work to design a program to restore balance and well-being in our guests’ lives.
If you’d like to talk to us about treatment options and how we can help you recover, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our intake team.