One of the biggest challenges faced by addicts is when they reach the point of acknowledgement, or what is more commonly known as “rock bottom”. This is the turning point where they realise they have an addiction problem and can either do something about it, or continue as they are.
Those who choose to address the problem and take steps to piece their lives back together face a long journey. Be it drug or alcohol addiction, getting clean is a huge accomplishment. Not only do drugs and alcohol have a devastating impact on the brain and mental health, years of substance abuse can also take a heavy toll on the body. It is therefore vital that in order to properly heal following recovery from addiction, gradual steps are taken to address and restore physical health. In addition to a healthy mind, a healthy body does much to help prevent a relapse.
The negative effects of substance abuse on the body
A substance abuser who is well into the recovery stage will be aware of how negatively drugs or alcohol have impacted on their lives, and will have realised the destructive aftermath. However, they may not be aware that the long-term abuse of any substance will have lasting effects on the body, long after recovery has begun. Every drug has side effects that are inherently tied to its chemical ingredients, even if these drugs are not addictive. It is helpful to understand the detrimental effects and health risks of drugs on the body before implementing a physical healing regimen.
Alcohol: Long-term addiction can cause damage to the entire body. Heart: cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), stroke and high blood pressure. Liver: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Immune system: Alcohol can weaken the immune system, making you prone to diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Alcohol can also increase the risk of oral, oesophageal, throat, liver and breast cancer.
Cocaine: Short-term effects include increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, narrowed blood vessels, enlarged pupils, headache, abdominal pain and nausea, insomnia, heart attack, stroke, seizure and coma. Long-term effects include loss of the sense of smell, nosebleeds, nasal damage and trouble swallowing, infection and death of bowel tissue from decreased blood flow, and poor nutrition and weight loss from decreased appetite.
Heroin: Short-term effects include warm flushing of skin, dry mouth, heavy feeling in the hands and feet, itching, nausea, vomiting, and slowed breathing and heart rate. Long-term effects include collapsed veins, abscesses, infection of the lining and valves in the heart, constipation and stomach cramps, liver or kidney disease, and pneumonia.
Marijuana: Short-term effects include balance and coordination problems, and increased heart rate and appetite. Long-term effects include being overweight/obesity, chronic cough and frequent respiratory infections.
Methamphetamine: Short-term effects include increased breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature, irregular heartbeat, and decreased appetite. Long-term effects include weight loss, insomnia, severe dental problems (“meth mouth”), and intense itching that can lead to skin sores from scratching.
Prescription opioids: These include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine and oxycodone. Physiologic tolerance may occur from chronic opioid use, requiring escalating dosage to alleviate pain. Short-term effects include nausea, vomiting, constipation, dry mouth, itching, sweating, headache, slowed breathing, diffuse muscle weakness, bowel obstruction, slowed or irregular heartbeat, trouble urinating and death. Long-term effects of oxycodone include acetaminophen toxicity and kidney or liver failure. Long-term effects of hydrocodone include acetaminophen toxicity, liver damage and sensorineural hearing loss.
Steps to healing the body
Nutrition: People struggling with addictions do not consider food a high priority. In contrast, however, a person in recovery may very well overeat, especially if they were addicted to stimulants. Proper nutrition and hydration are vital to the healing process because they aid in the restoration of both mental and physical health and therefore improve the chance of recovery. Deficiencies in macro and micro nutrients can result in depression, low energy and anxiety, all of which may trigger a relapse. Macronutrients are the structural and energy-giving caloric components of our foods that most of us are familiar with. They include carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals, and antioxidants that are essential for good health.
It may be necessary to work with a nutritionist who understands the particular needs of the addiction recovery process.
Exercise as healing
It is believed that exercise stimulates the same circuits in the brain as quite a number of addictive substances, so partaking in some form of physical activity may be a more beneficial way of replacing self-destructive behaviours. As with the nutritional plan, enlisting the help of a professional will ensure that the correct advice and assistance are given. This is even more important if the person has physical problems which may be exacerbated by exercise. Personal trainers have the relevant experience and know how to customize workout plans to address an individual’s specific needs.
For the recovering addict, healing their body back into good condition is a vital part of the recovery process.
Nutrition and exercise are key to the healing process. Just taking small positive steps towards improving physical health may contribute to the overall feeling of well-being, which will result in a reduced likelihood of relapsing. Addiction recovery is a lifelong process – for every few steps forward, there may be a few steps backwards. If at any time the recovering addict feels like they are slipping back into old destructive behaviours, professional help must be sought as soon as possible. The recovery process is not a solo journey. It involves the care and input from not only professionals but friends and family alike. One step, and one day at a time.
David is the Clinical and Development Director of Twin Rivers Rehab in South Africa and a UK Accredited Addictions Therapist with the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals UK. Articles/Blogs are written with the assistance of researchers and other specialists in the field of addiction and the recovery process