I have never been an alcoholic or an addict in the typical sense. I do, however, work in an addiction treatment wellness center, where I am viewed as an expert on all things fitness and nutrition. I started exercising to transform a body I was unhappy with. When I started training in clinical settings rather than in for-profit gyms, I found my passion in helping those who need to exercise to better their health. Working with people in the beginning stages of their recovery has been an eye-opening, rewarding experience. Whether or not someone is recovering, we all have similar motivations.
My team and I work to instill the importance of exercise in recovery with every person who enters our doors. We discuss how to remain consistent in a workout program. We also teach people about proper diet and nutrition.
People who are new to recovery often look at working out only as a means of changing their appearance. It takes a few weeks or more for most people to compare how much better they feel after a workout to how they felt during their former using, inactive lifestyle. They typically chalk it up to the building of muscles, how they feel when looking in the mirror, and how their clothes fit. What many don’t realize, which is also the point of this article, are the unnoticed changes going on inside of their bodies.
As a former client shared, “Fitness and healthy eating were two things that had absolutely nothing to do with my life prior to coming to [treatment]. I made attempts, but never stuck to it or took it seriously. After all those years of abusing my body with drugs, I went to [treatment] and decided to make changes, partly because I could no longer rely on drugs to keep me thin. [Treatment] was my entry into healthy eating habits and working out. I slowly began seeing results. I felt good – a natural good.”
Alcoholism affects every working system of the body. The liver is most affected, as the constant demand of filtering the toxins puts it on overdrive, potentially leading to alcoholic fatty liver. This overdrive then overburdens the pancreas, which must work harder to produce insulin to regulate blood sugar from the alcohol, typically leading to an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes. The stress on the pancreas causes inflammation, thus affecting the digestive system, which leads to irritable bowel syndrome, incontinence and gastric ulcers or esophageal varices.
The kidneys take on the effort of regulating hydration and electrolyte levels, leading to altered mental status, dehydration, personality issues and cardiac issues. The early cardiac issues lead to cardiomyopathy – better known as heart disease – as well as heart attacks, circulation problems and stroke.
Stemming from these issues, the reproductive systems in men and women are often affected by alcoholism, leading to erectile dysfunction and irregular menstruation. In both men and women, alcoholism can lead to infertility.
The skeletal system is frequently affected by the inability to absorb the right nutrients, leading to thinning bones, weakened muscles and loss of motor control.
These internal battles would strain the immune system in a person who doesn’t drink; but alcoholics with systems weakened by chronic drinking are more vulnerable to any type of illness, including pneumonia or tuberculosis.
The potential for acute and chronic damage can be catastrophic. However, the people I work with are proof that with exercise and proper nutrition, the possibility of returning to normal functioning is greater than with detox alone.
From an external standpoint, the body increases muscle mass and decreases body fat. Internally, this increase in muscle mass leads to stronger muscles that allow for better movement and control throughout the day. Weightlifting strengthens the skeletal system as bone density increases.
Implementing any type of cardiovascular routine helps counter the disrepair of the cardiovascular system by lowering the dangerous levels of low-density lipids, the usual causes of heart attacks and strokes. Whether the cardiovascular work is a traditional exercise like running or biking, any activity that elevates the heart rate for a prolonged period of time will work. As the fatty cholesterol blocking the arteries begins to dissipate, the more efficient cardiovascular system can better oxygenate the cells. Proper oxygenation of cells across the body allows the body to begin healing.
The immune system strengthens as the boost in white blood cells allows for a faster removal of problematic germs. Increased circulation benefits the kidneys, which become better equipped to filter hydration levels and excrete excess. Though diabetes is not a curable disease, resistance training will help regulate blood sugar levels and can often lessen or eliminate the need for medications. Alcohol-induced fatty liver disease is another illness that cannot be reversed completely, but exercise and a healthy diet full of vegetables and fruits will help.
Mental fog from prolonged alcohol use will clear after a short period of consistent exercise. The brain will release chemicals that improve mood, increase brain functions, and provide the body with an overall stronger control center.
“I have worked out most of my life, but the depression killed that part of me . . . I came to treatment with low self-esteem and hated my body. [The trainers] all helped me want to be fit and not focus on being fat,” another client shared with me. What she related is common; most of our clients are faced with mental anguish and a poor self-image. As someone who began working out to change how I looked, I know how harmful these thoughts can be.
Some of the underlying causes for excessive drinking could be treated through exercise, as well. Low self-worth, depression, anxiety and trauma are usually at the top of the list. Exercise allows a person to feel energetically stronger through personal accomplishments. The inevitable fear of the unknown can be alleviated as they learn how to assess the situation, plan appropriately and reach their goals.
The benefits of exercise are far-reaching! Exercise has been proven to increase and regulate serotonin levels, and more studies are being conducted to support similar effects for dopamine levels. Depression caused by trauma or a chemical imbalance responds well to an increase in dopamine and serotonin. Low levels of these neurotransmitters are linked to depression, an increased risk of suicide, and a higher risk for mental illness.
Mental instability, problematic illnesses, and the domino effect of systems failing due to the effects of alcoholism, are a concern for us all. The first step is to stop drinking and begin a supervised detoxification at a medical facility. The next, and equally important, step is to replace a drink with an exercise program that will make the road to rehabilitation much easier. The lessons learned will be lifelong, reaching beyond the walls of the wellness center and into recovery.