Study Shows How Exercise May Help Meth Addicts Stay Clean
Exercise appears to break a chemical connection in the brains of withdrawing meth users, increasing the odds that they will remain drug free, a new study finds.
People affected by methamphetamine addiction face a number of challenges when they enter treatment and begin their recovery. Prominent among these challenges is the risk of relapse associated with the symptoms of methamphetamine withdrawal during the earliest phases of treatment. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Brain Structure and Function, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute used laboratory experiments on rats to assess the impact of exercise on the withdrawal-related relapse rate in people recovering from methamphetamine addiction. These researchers concluded that even minor or inconsistent amounts of exercise may have a positive effect.
Methamphetamine Withdrawal and Relapse
All people affected by methamphetamine addiction have a physical need to consume the drug. In order to protect the “new normal” established by addiction, the brain creates mechanisms designed to ensure continued methamphetamine intake. Chief among these mechanisms is withdrawal, a collection of symptoms that appears when the current level of intake fails to satisfy the brain’s requirements. Specific symptoms of meth-related withdrawal include a powerful urge to return to active intake of the drug, a significant drop in energy levels, a spike in anxiety levels and a spike in depression levels.
In a treatment context, methamphetamine withdrawal typically arises when a program participant goes through detoxification, a process centered on the cessation of meth consumption and the initial establishment of abstinence. During detox and the period following detox, the urge to consume methamphetamine can increase sharply. In a significant number of cases, the mental and physical pressure of such an urge contributes to the onset of a relapse and an active return to meth use. Relapse risks remain after withdrawal comes to an end, but the period of active withdrawal marks a peak in such risks.
Exercise and Substance Use
Current scientific evidence indicates that regular participation in aerobic exercise can substantially reduce the odds that any given person will develop problems with substance use disorder (substance abuse and/or substance addiction). Current evidence also indicates that aerobic exercise participation can improve the treatment outcomes of people recovering from this disorder. Exercise may produce at least part of its beneficial effect by acting as a rewarding replacement for substance use inside the brain’s pleasure center. According to a large-scale study review published in 2011 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, exercise participation may lead to a lower baseline level of substance intake in current users, help prevent general escalations of substance intake and help prevent involvement in periodic substance binges.
Impact on Relapse Risks
In the study published in Brain Structure and Function, the team from Scripps used laboratory experiments on rats to see if exercise in the form of running can reduce the odds of relapse in people going through methamphetamine withdrawal. The researchers undertook this project, in part, as an extension of previous work from the same team that indicated that running may lead to a reduction in the amount of methamphetamine consumed by active users of the drug. They divided their rats into two groups. During the initial phase of the study, the animals in both groups had ready access to methamphetamine and developed addictions to the drug. In the second phase of the study, the members of one group of rats were provided with a running wheel and used the wheel as often as they wanted. The second group of rats did not receive running wheel access. The researchers subsequently compared the intensity of the two groups’ level of desire to return to active meth intake.
The researchers concluded that the rats given the opportunity to exercise on a wheel exhibited a lower level of desire to return to methamphetamine use than the rats not given the opportunity to exercise. After examining the brains of the rats given access to exercise, they concluded that exercise participation may partially break a chemical connection in the brains of withdrawing meth users that increases the odds that these individuals will relapse back into drug intake.
The study’s authors note that even the rats that exercised only sporadically experienced a notable reduction in their methamphetamine-seeking urges. They believe that, in addition to demonstrating the potential benefits of exercise, their work may ultimately help pharmaceutical researchers develop new approaches to reducing the severity of meth-related withdrawal and preventing meth-related relapse.
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