July 25, 2022
Brain recovery after alcohol and other drug use
Alcohol and drug use affect many parts of the body, including the brain.1
Just how substances impact the brain is determined by:
- age – young people’s brains are particularly at risk, as they’re still developing
- type of substance/s used
- how much, how often and how long you’ve been using.2
Before we talk about brain recovery, let’s look at what happens to your brain when you use alcohol and other drugs.
How do alcohol and other drugs affect the brain?
When alcohol and other drugs (AOD) enter the body, the bloodstream and the brain, they interfere with its normal processes, altering behaviours, emotions and moods.
Some drugs do this by imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers (neurotransmitters), others by overstimulating the brain’s ‘reward’ system.1
Neurotransmitters are involved in almost every aspect of day-to-day life – regulating appetite, motivation, stress, memory and learning. When neurotransmitters are impaired by alcohol or other drugs they can become overstimulated or blocked so they can’t perform usual functions.3
The brain’s reward system is designed to reinforce positive experiences (such as eating, socialising and sex), so you’ll do it again.
Each time you have a positive experience, the brain releases dopamine – a ‘feel-good’ hormone – so you’ll remember the experience and continue to repeat it to form a habit.2,3
Repeated AOD use can change the structure and function of the brain, hijacking the brain’s reward system and driving the transition from occasional use to dependence.1,4
As dependence grows, changes go beyond the reward system to impact regions of the brain involved in memory, impulse control, learning, and behaviour.5
Risk and protective factors
Not everyone who uses AOD will develop dependence – most people don’t.2
Some people are at increased risk because of their genetics, environment and age of first using alcohol and other drugs.
But there are also factors that can decrease the risks.
These ‘protective factors’ include:
- participation in sport and other recreational activities
- social connections and a sense of belonging
- healthy coping skills
- strong and supportive relationships with parents and peer groups.2
See here for more information on understanding drug and alcohol addiction (dependence).
How does the brain heal itself after alcohol and other drug use?
Our brains have an incredible ability to adapt and repair – even after prolonged AOD use and addiction.
The brain continues to build brain cells and neural pathways throughout our life, and its ability to adapt and change – called neuroplasticity – allows it to modify, grow and reorganise itself after addiction.1
But, it takes time for the brain to heal and repair itself.
How long it takes often depends on the substance/s taken and the specific damage done2 and some AOD-related brain damage is irreversible.
For the brain to start healing, it needs to be free from the drug being used or the amount needs to have been significantly reduced. There’s a broad range of treatment options to support people to cut back or stop their use if this is your goal.
Detoxing or withdrawal from alcohol or other drug use can take a few days to a few weeks depending on:
- type of substance/s used
- how much, how often and how long you’ve been using
- your physical and psychological health
- the method of withdrawal.6
Medications are available for some substances to help support the detox and withdrawal process.
Helping your brain recover after alcohol and other drug use
You can support your brain (and body) to recover and improve brain health and neuroplasticity, through:
- regular exercise, which can increase the size of the hippocampus – a part of the brain vulnerable to AOD use. It’s also good for mental and physical health
- practicing mindfulness, such as meditation, which can help strengthen brain circuits damaged by AOD use
- eating a balanced and nutritious diet to help offset vitamin and mineral deficiencies that typically occur with AOD use
- regular sleep, which is when the brain flushes out toxins. Establishing good sleep habits can help brain recovery.7-9
Recovery from dependence takes time, patience and support, but help is available.
For confidential information about treatment and support services available in your area call the ADF DrugInfo line on 1300 858 484.
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- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health CHAPTER 2, THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, AND ADDICTION.[24/06/2022].
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs and the Brain [24/06/2022].
- Dopamine: What It Is, Function & Symptoms. Cleveland Clinic. [11/07/2022].
- Biology of Addiction. NIH News in Health. 2017 [24/07/2022].
- Lewis M. Addiction and the Brain: Development, Not Disease. Neuroethics. 2017;10:7–18. [24/06/2022].
- Recovery of brain volumes with abstinence may vary for different brain regions. ScienceDaily. [24/06/2022].
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the long-term effects of methamphetamine misuse?. [24/06/2022].
- Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Withdrawal. [11/07/2022].
- Costa KG, Cabral DA, Hohl R, Fontes EB. Rewiring the Addicted Brain Through a Psychobiological Model of Physical Exercise. Front Psychiatry. [24/06/2022].
- Priddy SE, Howard MO, Hanley AW, Riquino MR, Friberg-Felsted K, Garland EL. Mindfulness meditation in the treatment of substance use disorders and preventing future relapse: neurocognitive mechanisms and clinical implications. Subst Abuse Rehabil. 2018;9:103–14.[24/06/2022].
- Grant LP, Haughton B, Sachan DS. Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104:604–10. [24/06/2022].