Whether it’s running, CrossFit, soccer, or cycling, you can find me working out at least 6 days a week. It has been an integral part of my recovery program. Even before I got sober, sports were part of my life, but I almost always half-assed it. When drinking was my number one priority, soccer was second or third. As a society, we know that exercising is healthy, but I don’t think we really understand just how healthy it can be. For example, I didn’t realize it would be able to help me stay sober. Now there is a new study that says exercise coupled with a certain regimen of methamphetamine can help people with substance use disorders stop using.
What the Study Says
The study was published in the FASEB Journal this month and details how exercise and methamphetamine affect circadian rhythms. Researchers at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo came to their conclusions by seeing that both methamphetamine and running wheel activity target the same rewards centers in the brain. The same reward centers that are also involved in daily synchronization of physiological rhythms. The researchers were interested in circadian rhythms because addiction interrupts them, which results in an increased craving for a drug and can lead to relapse after treatment. They based their research on the fact that the success of treatment and prevention of relapse are linked to the degree of circadian disturbance in substance users. When circadian rhythms are interrupted by drugs during addiction they don’t necessarily recover, so the researchers wanted to explore how they might change this.
The University of Buffalo researchers analyzed mice with removed suprachiasmatic nuclei, a region within the brain’s hypothalamus region that acts as the body’s master clock. This is similar to someone whose sleep cycles and metabolism are off balance because of addiction. In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers provided access to running wheels and methamphetamine. The experiment showed that the mice demonstrated a regulated circadian rhythmicity while exposed to the combination of methamphetamine and exercise. The mice continued to exhibit this behavior even after the methamphetamine was removed. The researchers paired a reward, in this case, the running wheel along with methamphetamine in 24-hour intervals over a period of time. The animals’ fragmented sleep/wake cycles eventually adjusted to the 24-hour cycles in a process the researchers referred to as ‘entrainment and consolidation.’
The researchers use of learning and memory may have enabled them to rewire the brain’s circuitry, producing a new clock while using the same stimulus that caused addiction in the first place. This was necessary in order to change the euphoric and enjoyable characteristics associated with drugs to a new healthy stimulus, like exercise. Exercise encourages the creation of new neurons which may also play a role in successful brain rewiring. The researchers’ hope is to duplicate this association in people to lead to an accelerated efficiency of addiction treatment, while simultaneously decreasing the chances for relapse and creating healthy circadian rhythms after experiencing withdrawal. Their next step is to understand how the pairing of exercise and methamphetamine activates a new circadian clock in the brain to induce strong rhythms and drug withdrawal.
What it Means For Addiction Recovery
Addiction can wreak havoc not only on the body but on the mind and spirit. That’s why it’s so important in recovery to repair the psychological and chemical dependency as well as the mind-body connection. Exercise is beneficial in many ways. It can relieve and reduce stress. Moving your body can alleviate tension and release negative emotions you’ve been keeping bottled up during active addiction. Exercise also naturally and positively alters your brain chemistry. It releases natural endorphins that create a pleasurable, natural high. Exercise during recovery can help reintroduce natural levels of endorphins into your system. It reteaches your body that it has the power to regulate your own brain chemistry and mood naturally. Additionally, exercise can give you an overall more positive outlook on life. Increased feelings of self-confidence, optimism, and decreased feelings of anxiety and depression are results of moving your body on a regular basis. It’s fun to see yourself achieve goals and grow stronger. Exercise fosters higher energy levels, improved sleep, and enhanced well-being. When you reach exercise benchmarks it also reinforces the goal of recovery as achievable.
Now that we know that regulation of the circadian clock and exercise both help people with substance use disorders recover, and in this case through exercise for meth users, we are one step closer to honing in on an even more specific way to be successful in recovery.
Recovery is all about restoring balance and finding a treatment path that works for you. If the world can offer one more way to help meth users stay sober, that’s a win in my book. We already knew exercise was a good thing to do, but we didn’t know how crucial it could be to helping people live a life free from drugs and alcohol. This may open doors to exercise-based recovery programs and specialized treatment plans that could save countless lives.