The journey to sobriety is as unique as the individuals who travel it. After all, no two people experience addiction in precisely the same way. Even though all must walk their own unique path to recovery, there is one particular tool that has been shown to support addiction treatment, regardless of the particular circumstances of the disease. Concerted efforts to cultivate your physical health will not only improve your overall wellness and general quality of life, but it can significantly reduce your risk of relapse (1, 2, 3). What, exactly, is the connection between physical health and addiction recovery?
Disrupting the Biological Mechanisms of Addiction
One of the most significant links between physical health and addiction recovery can be found in the profound impacts that physically healthy behaviors have on the brain. A large and growing body of research affirms the often strong connections between addiction and other mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety disorders.
Interestingly, the connections between physical and mental health appear to be equally strong. For example, a number of studies have shown that regular, moderate exercise, including aerobic and resistance-based regimens, produce important changes in the brain, particularly relating to dopamine circulation (1, 2, 4). As mood and behavior-regulating neurotransmitters begin to circulate more effectively and efficiently in the brain, problematic symptoms of depression, anxiety, and impulsivity begin to dissipate. Since substance abuse behaviors are often borne of or amplified by the effort to cope with these mental health challenges, when mental health symptoms subside, so too, do relapse triggers.
Indeed, as the connection between physical fitness and relapse avoidance becomes ever clearer, Bayshore has deepened its commitment to providing a holistic approach to client care, emphasizing physical health as an integral component of addiction recovery. As such, the Center offers a range of services designed to help clients cultivate a lifestyle that supports physical wellness, along with behavioral and psychological wellness. Bayshore clients can participate in a range of fitness classes, from aerobics to yoga, to equip them with healthy alternatives for coping with mental health challenges that may encompass stress, anxiety, mood disorders, and other psychiatric conditions.
A Brand New You
The connections between physical and mental health, and the ultimate link to sobriety, extend far beyond the positive impacts a fitness routine can have on the brain. A lifestyle that promotes physical health can also provide a critical foundation for the cultivation of a new “sober identity” (5, 6).
Over time, addiction infiltrates and infects virtually every aspect of your life, from what you do to how you interact with others to what and who you ultimately believe yourself to be. Eventually, dysfunctional patterns emerge, as identities are formed by and filtered through the lens of illness and dependency (7, 8, 9, 10).
However, when you start to prioritize wellness in your daily life, powerful things begin to happen. For one thing, a healthy lifestyle doesn’t just affect the person in recovery, but it also impacts the entire family and that can have a profound effect on the overall family dynamic. Instead of the daily life of the household centering on the disease, it can center on the wellness of the entire family.
A weekly game of basketball or tennis, or a nightly after-dinner walk with the family is a terrific way to integrate physical activity into your life, getting those dopamine and serotonin channels flowing, lifting your mood and helping you manage stress in healthy ways. Equally as important are the positive memories you will build with the people you love most. And that serves to replace the destructive cycle of addiction with the healthy, life-affirming cycle of physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
But that is not all. When you prioritize physical health in your recovery process, you telegraph not only to the world but also to yourself that you matter, that you are worthy of nurturing and effort and care. The practice of self-care is fundamental to long-term recovery because the insidiousness of the disease of addiction is its aptitude for systematically stripping you of your sense of self-worth. But every healthy meal you cook, every hour of exercise you complete, every extra step you take to make your life healthier and happier is a subconscious message you send to yourself that you are more important than your addiction, that you are more valuable, more worthy of time and attention than any drug or drink.
Plus, in cultivating a lifestyle that supports physical wellness, you are also creating an environment that mitigates or even eliminates relapse triggers (12). That means you are using physical wellness to support sobriety from the inside out. You will, for instance, be reducing the external stimuli that might cue the addictive behavior while at the same time giving your body the nurturing it needs, from nutrition to healthy sleep, to reducing cravings at the psychobiological level (13, 14).
Feeding Body and Spirit at Bayshore
Bayshore’s highly individualized, whole-person approach to recovery includes a significant emphasis on feeding the body as well as the heart, mind, and spirit. In addition to the wide array of fitness classes, Bayshore also offers opportunities for clients and their families to develop skills that will support comprehensive wellness. Clients and families can learn about diet and nutrition and can even learn to cook healthy and delicious meals designed to suit every taste in our large, fully-equipped gourmet kitchen.
Understanding nutrition, hydration, and supplementation with key vitamins and minerals is particularly important for those in recovery, because long-term substance abuse has been associated with the development of poor dietary habits which can increase the risk of relapse (15). In addition, over time, substance abuse often gives rise to nutritional deficiencies and metabolic imbalances that may exacerbate cravings while compromising overall health (15).
Similarly, failure to properly hydrate can also increase cravings and exacerbate relapse risk, particularly in those with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Studies have shown, for instance, that hydration can not only aid in detoxing the body but can also substantially ease withdrawal symptoms, by increasing the efficiency with which the body rids itself of drugs and alcohol (16, 17). Additionally, dehydration is strongly associated not only with alcohol abuse but also with the misuse of other substances, such as methamphetamines and cocaine (16, 17, 18). Learning how to hydrate properly can be a critical first step in regaining your physical health during recovery. Exploring strategies for preventing dehydration is an important component of addiction recovery.
At Bayshore, our multi-disciplinary team of clinicians, psychologists, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and integrative medicine experts enables us to partner with clients to determine their health needs. This holistic approach, with its emphasis on physical as well as mental and behavioral wellness, enables our clients to enjoy a life in recovery that combines diet, exercise, recreation, meditation, and mindfulness. That means gaining a healthier, happier sobriety and a quality of life that our clients and their families so richly deserve. If you or someone you love is experiencing addiction, reach out to our team at Bayshore to discuss how our team can help you regain your sobriety and return to physical and mental health.