Over the course of the next 3 blog posts, we’ll be exploring the body. We’ll begin this week by touching on the consequences of long-term substance abuse and important body-oriented considerations in early recovery. In our next post, we’ll dive into somatic therapy and talk about how the body may hold the key to healing some of the wounds that led to substance abuse and addiction in the first place. We’ll wrap up the series by talking about body-centered activities that can support ongoing recovery.
Healing the Body
Addiction and substance abuse wreak havoc on the human body. Even those who report taking excellent care of their bodies, aside from using substances, will suffer some consequences of adding chemicals to their physical systems. Intoxication and withdrawal symptoms in the short and longer term are only part of the picture. Different chemicals can impact different parts of the body, but they all have potentially long-term effects. Drugs and alcohol can harm the vital organs and systems of the body including the heart, skin, lungs, stomach, throat, liver, pancreas, brain, pulmonary and nervous systems (Betterhealth Channel, 2020). Even the skeletal system may be impacted (American Addiction Centers, 2020). It is critically important that physical healing be included in early and ongoing recovery.
Where to begin? The first place to start is always with the biggest threat. Depending on the type of chemical ingested, intoxication (overdose) and withdrawal are both potentially deadly and should be addressed first. If you or someone you know is currently intoxicated or withdrawing from chemicals, or you know that you are at risk of serious withdrawal if you attempt to stop using*, seek medical assistance. While intoxication might seem benign, overdosing on any drug can be life-threatening, and it can happen quickly. Withdrawal from some substances is very uncomfortable, from others, like alcohol and benzodiazepines, it is potentially deadly. Medically assisted withdrawal is both safer and often less debilitating than going it alone. Yes, this could mean a hospital stay or even longer treatment, and while that might seem scary or simply disruptive, it could also be life-saving.
Once the acute danger has passed, it’s a good idea to get a full physical exam. If you go to a residential treatment facility, the staff physician will likely begin that process. As challenging as honesty may be at this point, the physicians you meet, in a treatment center or in your GPs office, will be better able to serve you if they understand your full substance-use history. Again, substances can have very specific effects on different systems in the body. Well-informed doctors are more likely to know what to look for and how to proceed.
Whether doctors identify significant medical issues or not, the following 3 things can help your body (including your brain) in early recovery:
- Addressing nutrition issues and properly hydrating can help heal and nourish the body, stabilize mood, reduce cravings, and address medical issues caused or impacted by substance use (Salz, December 2014). It can also improve your sleep (Cedars-Sinai Staff, September 2020), which is another important thing to address in early recovery.
- Exercising can help heal the brain and may also help decrease cravings (Twark, December 2018) while also stretching, building muscle, improving cardiovascular health, and helping induce relaxation and improve sleep (be sure to ask your doctor what kinds of exercise are best for you and your body).
- Sleeping well will help your body heal and can help you manage stress and decrease anxiety and depression (Cedars-Sinai Staff, September 2020). While sleep can be an issue for many reasons in early recovery, learning and practicing good sleep hygiene like avoiding overstimulation before bed, eating well, exercising, and practicing meditation and relaxation during the day can help.
You can, if you choose, learn about and practice all three of these on your own, and there are professionals in many communities who specialize in these areas too. If you have decided not to go to a formal treatment program, consider asking your doctor or therapist for recommendations. Many residential treatment centers have nutritionists and other health and well-being experts on staff, and even some outpatient facilities contract with professionals in these areas. If you are able and willing to check in to a treatment facility, this can be a real benefit.
The human body. It’s miraculous, true. Unfortunately, it’s not impenetrable. In fact, your human body is part and parcel of everything you do, and if addiction and substance abuse have been part of your life, then your human body has been impacted. There’s just no way to avoid that fact. The good news is that the body also steps onto the road to recovery with you. There are things that you can do, early in recovery, to help your body heal while you’re healing your mind and heart and letting go of the behaviors that were harming you in so many ways.
In our next post, we’ll talk about how the body can help heal the wounds of the past and help move through emotions in the present. Somatic therapy is on the docket for next time.
*If you are unsure of your withdrawal potential or the risks involved, please do not hesitate to reach out for assistance. Contact your local physician, or visit your local ER or health clinic. You can also call the SAMHSA National Helpline 24 hours per day at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
American Addiction Centers (February 2020). The possible ramifications of drug abuse on the skeletal system. Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/health-complications-addiction/skeletal-system on July 31, 2021.
Betterhealth Channel, (2020). How drugs affect your body. Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/How-drugs-affect-your-body on July 31, 2020.
Cedars-Sinai Staff (September 2020). Good sleep in times of stress. Retrieved from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/sleep-stress.html on July 31, 2020.
Salz, A. (December 2014). CPE-monthly: Substance abuse and nutrition. Today’s Dietician. Retrieved from https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/120914p44.shtml on July 31, 2021.
Twark, C. (December 2018). Can exercise help conquer addiction? Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-conquer-addiction-2018122615641 on July 31, 2021.