On a day-to-day basis, the brain attempts to maintain homeostasis by producing a delicate balance of stimulants and depressants to maintain a norm and in response to certain situations, more of one or the other will be produced. When we consume alcohol our natural and delicate brain chemistry is impacted.
Alcohol is a depressant so initially counters any stimulants in our body, allowing us to feel immediately more relaxed. But as the alcohol is consumed and the brain attempts to restore the norm, it will release stimulants to help bring levels back to normal, then as the alcohol is processed and wears off, additional stimulants are left behind and we feel overly anxious. Over time, we need to drink more to feel relaxed and the brain becomes more and more proficient at releasing stimulants to counter the alcohol, which can lead to tolerance and increased anxiety over time. The stimulants are left behind after the previous drinking and it takes time to remove them back to normal leaving us feeling stressed, anxious and overly alert after a drinking session. This goes some way to explaining why people who drink often have the typical “hangxiety” the day after drinking and complain of interrupted or poor sleep on the evening of a drinking session.
We are often told that exercise is good for us but in sobriety it can be even more beneficial, helping to shift our mindset around perceived negative emotions and helping us to find positive results and focus.
In this short summary, we explain a few benefits of exercising in your sobriety.
- Improves stress
Stress is a normal, yet unwanted side effect of modern life. However, when we have been using alcohol as one of the ways to cope with stress and we remove it, we can be left feeling even more stressed. Firstly about whatever is stressing us out in the first place and secondly because we can’t have a drink to numb it. Exercise can really help us with this. During exercise we release endorphins (feel-good hormones) which help to counter the effects of stress hormones in the body, generally improve mood and help us to feel better. Additionally, exercise slows down the release of stress hormones. Exercise also gives us a temporary time out from our problems which can be a healthy distraction to the rumination and worrying that can occur when we are stressed. Our blood circulation is also improved and our blood pressure over time is lowered which are also important when dealing with stress to reduce the strain on the heart.
- Sleep is improved
When we remove alcohol from our life, sleep improves. Alcohol reduces Melatonin which is the natural sleep-inducing hormone and also disrupts our sleep cycles, reducing the quantity of REM sleep we have during the night. Although the exact function of REM sleep is still largely unknown, we do know if rats are deprived of REM sleep, they will die and we also know REM sleep is important for memory, brain development, and mood stabilising.
In sobriety, it can take time for the body to return to healthy sleeping patterns and exercise can help with this, improving quality and quantity of sleep.
- Energy levels are increased
Sobriety can, at times, feel difficult. We are dealing with a load of raw emotions without the crutch for alcohol and particularly in the early days, we can feel drained of energy at times. Exercise can help to boost energy levels and really put a spring in your step.
- Physical health is improved
Alcohol compromises our immune system. In fact, the WHO recently stated that “Alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and non-communicable diseases and mental health disorders……. In particular, alcohol compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes”. There are many reasons why this occurs, but one could be that alcohol metabolism can take priority over other bodily functions, therefore preventing the body from dealing with other functions such as fighting disease. Impaired sleep can also increase the risk of getting sick as the immune system is compromised. As alcohol is processed in the liver (detoxification), and can cause liver damage over time, the liver’s role in immunity may also be impaired.
When we exercise, we not only reduce the risk of certain cancers, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis but potentially, exercise speeds up the circulation of antibodies and white blood cells, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before, although the exact preventative details are still unknown. It is also thought that a slight rise in body temperature during and immediately after exercise, could help prevent bacteria from growing, similarly to how it occurs when we have a fever.
- Mood is improved
Alcohol is a depressant (as we read earlier) so has a huge impact on mood and mental health. However, if we have been using alcohol to self-medicate or even cope with our mental health, it can take time for the delicate balance of stimulants and depressants to return to normal and during this time, our mental health can take a dip. We may also find we are navigating our way through complex emotions and feelings that have previously been numbed and we don’t know how to process these emotions and feelings.
Exercise is a natural way to produce feel-good chemicals that we were perhaps seeking from alcohol.
- Chances of success are improved
Having a new, healthy focus can have a side effect of boosting confidence and can give us a sense of wellbeing. This can help prevent relapses. Research suggests that regular exercise can increase sobriety rates by 95%, perhaps helping people to manage stress, depression and anxiety, all of which can contribute to a relapse.
What exercise should you do?
There is no one size fits all answer here, but the release of endorphins after exercise provides feelings or happiness and well-being and the effects can be felt with just 30-minutes of exercise each day. Exercises such as walking, yoga, swimming, running and working out are all beneficial and you should definitely consider one or more of these as part of your daily routine.
If you want to give exercise a go but don’t know where to start, we have qualified PTs delivering Bee Fit sessions which can be booked for only £3.50 per session, running every weekday at 6:30am or included free as part of your membership