Recovery is a beautiful thing. It is a fact that even someone with a lengthy history of alcoholism can regain brain health in recovery, reversing years of damage to brain structures, volume, and functioning. Even after only six months, the individual in recovery will experience significant restoration of brain health.
In fact, even two weeks of abstinence will reveal a reversal of brain damage, according to a study out of Stanford University. The focus of the study was on volume loss caused by alcohol abuse, which is associated
Several factors may influence how long it takes for the brain to heal from alcohol addiction. These include the number of prior detoxifications, if the individual is a smoker, or if he or she has a strong family prevalence of alcoholism. These factors can slow down or prevent a complete brain recovery.
For someone considering getting treatment for an alcohol use disorder, it is encouraging to learn that not only will the individual experience improvements across the board in psychological and physical health, but their brain health will recover, too. These kinds of results will only be experienced when the individual complies with continuing care efforts and remains sober, but knowing that it is possible for the brain to heal from alcohol addiction is a powerful motivator.
How Alcoholism Affects Brain Health
Chronic alcohol abuse has deleterious effects on the brain. The brain matter volume literally shrinks as a result of alcoholism. In addiction, there can be an increase of cerebrospinal fluid. Along with the loss of volume in the insula and cingulate cortex, are other neuropsychological effects, also known as alcohol-related cognitive impairment, such as difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and even increased impulsivity.
Individuals with a serious alcohol use disorder experience changes in the frontal lobe, where executive functions like decision-making and self-control are regulated. The cerebellum is also affected by alcohol abuse, which is the region that contributes to controlling and coordinating muscle movements. Additionally, alcohol dependency can slow brain cell development and accelerate dementia.
5 Ways the Brain Heals from Alcohol Addiction
MRI imaging reveals the rapid restoration of brain volume in studies that measure brain scan results from participants of which half are in early alcohol recovery, starting 24-hours after detox, and half who had little exposure to alcohol. The increase in the cerebellum region was nearly completely restored after 14 days of abstinence.
Although the impact of chronic alcohol consumption on the brain is significant, the brain has an amazing ability to regenerate following abstinence from alcohol. This encouraging news is tempered somewhat by the fact that not all brain damage will be immediately restored, and that some effects of alcohol abuse on the brain may have permanent effects. However, the brain has an amazing capacity to heal. Some of the ways the brain heals from alcohol addiction include:
- Brain volume is restored. A dramatic increase in brain matter volume occurs within 2 weeks of abstinence from alcohol, as has been shown on brain imaging tests.
- New cell growth. While some brain cell destruction is permanent, sustained abstinence results in new brain cell growth in the hippocampus.
- Improved motor skills. Executing a motor skill toward a predetermined movement outcome is a brain function that improves with sobriety.
- Improved visual-spatial abilities. While visual-spatial abilities will not recover completely there is some improvement with long-term abstinence.
- Improved cognitive abilities. As the brain heals, cognitive functions, such as short-term and long-term memory, and most executive functions are improved.
Recovery of such behaviors as sustained attention span and other neurocognitive functions may take longer to rebound.
Other Benefits of Sobriety
Renewed brain health isn’t the only benefit enjoyed in sobriety. Some of the other positive effects associated with early recovery include:
- Improved mood. Alcoholism often coexists with the symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. The impact of alcohol on the brain creates emotional instability, and the negative life consequences due to alcoholism only enhance feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety. After a month or two in recovery an improvement in mood along with a renewed sense of purpose are quite common.
- You just feel better. Alcohol is a toxic substance that can do serious damage to major organs. High daily consumption results in hangovers and nausea, and a general feeling of illness as the disease progresses. By abstaining from alcohol the body eliminates the associated toxins and the brain will stabilize. After a few months of sobriety the individual may feel more energetic and focused as the body begins to function optimally again.
- Better appearance. Alcohol abuse has a dehydrating effect that can leave us look old and tired, as the body is unable to produce new cells at a normal rate. Inflammation caused by alcohol can cause a reddish skin tone. In sobriety the individual will notice an improvement in the overall appearance of their skin as collagen levels are restored to normal.
- Better sleep. People may be under the misunderstanding that alcohol will assist with sleep. Alcohol is a sedative and may help someone fall asleep faster, but its effects in the bloodstream will disrupt the third and fourth phases of the sleep cycle, impacting the circadian rhythm and causing sleep disturbance. Sustained sobriety has the positive affect of better sleep quality, a key component of achieving overall wellness.
- Weight loss. Alcohol is high in sugar content and calories, therefore alcohol abuse is often associated with weight gain and bloating. Individuals with a moderate to severe alcohol use disorder may also begin to adopt an unhealthy diet. This combination of high alcohol intake and poor diet can lead to extra pounds, liver distention, and water retention. When eliminating alcohol consumption from the daily caloric intake, facial features becoming more defined, your belly flattens, and a trimmer overall appearance will result.
Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder
An alcohol use disorder is defined as the excessive consumption of alcohol to the point that it begins to negatively impact health, quality of life, and daily functioning. Sometimes it can take years for an alcohol habit to begin to reveal negative consequence. It is always best to recognize the warning signs of an alcohol use disorder early on so appropriate steps can be taken to proactively obtain professional help.
Some of the signs of an alcohol problem include:
- Increased tolerance to alcohol, leading to higher alcohol consumption in an effort to experience the initial desirable effects
- Neglecting daily responsibilities, such as parenting obligations or paying bills
- Lying to others about how much you drink, hiding alcohol around the house, in the car, or at work
- Isolating from friends and family so one can drink in private
- Becoming obsessive about having alcohol available, looking forward to drinking, seeking excuses to drink
- Experiencing problems at work, declining work performance, termination from job
- Legal problems, such as DUI or child custody challenges
- Negatively impacting interpersonal relationships
- Alcohol cravings
- Attempting to stop drinking but cannot
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is withheld
Getting Help for Alcoholism
The road to restoring brain health and general wellness begins with the completion of a medically supervised detox program and commitment to addiction treatment. Following the detox the individual in recovery will need an extended period of professional treatment to acquire new behaviors and recovery skills designed to help them remain sober. Treatment programs are available in either an outpatient or a residential setting. The level of care that is appropriate is determined by the severity of the alcohol use disorder.
During the treatment phase of recovery the individual will participate in a variety of treatment activities and therapies that approach all aspects of alcoholism recovery. These interventions include:
- Psychotherapy, which allows the individual to explore underlying emotional issues or past traumas that may be a contributing factor.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, which guides the individual toward adopting new thought patterns that replace the dysfunction patterns that have fueled the alcohol abuse.
- Group therapy, which provides opportunities for individuals in recovery to gain mutual peer support and learn new recovery skills.
- Family-based therapy helps family members to process and heal their frustrations, emotions, and fears while learning new ways to relate.
- Medication management using naltrexone can help recovering alcoholics manage cravings, which can reduce the risk of relapse.
- Relapse prevention planning, which encourages the individual to examine their unique triggers and stressors that might disrupt recovery and lead to relapse.
- 12-step meetings or similar programming, which provide social support and opportunities for leadership and making new sober friends.
- Holistic therapies that can assist in regulating stress, such as yoga, massage therapy, acupuncture, practicing mindfulness, and art therapy can enhance the effects of traditional therapy as promote relaxation.
- Nutritional counseling and exercise, which can help build a healthy lifestyle and promote physical and emotional healing.
Anyone who desires to take back control of their life and enter into recovery from alcoholism should be encouraged by the improvements in brain health, mood, physical health, and quality of life that result from a commitment to sobriety.
Ken Seeley Communities Trusted Resources for Alcohol Recovery Treatment
Ken Seeley Communities is a leader in the field of addiction recovery. Founder Ken Seeley is a renowned professional interventionist who was featured regularly on the A&E series, Intervention. His recovery center provides all levels of treatment for the recovery continuum, including intervention services, medical detox, outpatient rehab programming, residential rehab programming, and sober living housing. If you are ready to address an alcohol use disorder and allow your brain to heal from alcohol addiction, please reach out to Ken Seeley Communities today at (877) 744-0502.