Researchers have recently discovered that exercise can have a major impact on reversing the neurological damage caused by years of heavy drinking. The study done at the University of Colorado at Boulder expands on the findings of previous studies done on the subject.
This recent study looked specifically at how the brain renewing effects of regular exercise could be applied to a person with a history of alcohol abuse. Because the brain damage caused by alcohol is similar to the damage that comes naturally with aging, a regular exercise regimen can still have a positive effect.
How alcohol damages the brain.
Almost immediately after you consume alcohol, the chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, start to react. The result is either a jump or decrease in the number of neurotransmitters present.
This change in brain chemistry can also be the reason behind the loss of coordination and sluggishness that drinkers experience. Another chemical in the brain is also affected by alcohol. Dopamine is the chemical behind the feelings of pleasure and well being that so many of us love to experience. When you drink, the levels of dopamine in the brain often increase.
In addition to changing brain chemistry, alcohol also has an effect on various regions of the brain itself. In the cerebral cortex, feelings of judgement and inhibition are impaired by the alcohol you drink.
Your sense of balance and body coordination are also impaired in the cerebellum. Body temperature also changes, along with the slowing of the rhythm of your breathing and decreased alertness.
This all happens in the brain's medulla. After your body processes and then eliminates the alcohol you have consumed, these effects disappear. But there are other long term effects that remain and that are a cause for concern, especially if the heavy drinking continues over a long period of time.
Memory loss is a common byproduct of a drinking habit, especially in younger people. And because alcohol damages the white matter of the brain, the necessary functions that that region of the brain is responsible for are also impaired. These functions include learning abilities, picking up visual cues, general functioning, and signaling to other parts of the brain.
How exercise can help.
Researchers found that the biggest reason behind why exercise can help reverse this type of damage to the brain is that it does so much to keep blood vessels healthy and functioning properly. Exercise has a direct impact on the blood vessels by keeping them from being damaged by high blood pressure and accumulation of cholesterol.
There is also evidence that exercise plays a role in keeping the white matter of the brain healthy. Aging and heavy drinking damage the nerves in the brain's white matter, causing a general decline in brain functioning and even a higher risk of Alzheimer's. Research participants who had a history of heavy drinking and practiced regular exercise showed less damage to white matter than other research participants who did not exercise.
It is still too early to say that there is a definite link between exercise and reversing brain damage caused by alcohol, but the results so far are promising. In the meantime, developing a regular exercise habit is still a very valuable tool for those in recovery. Not only does it keep you in shape, exercise can also lower stress levels, reduce symptoms of depression, and help you develop more confidence and a general sense of well being.