Monday, September 8, 2014

In Praise of Neurogenesis

A little sweat pays big dividends in recovery.

Scientists have long known that activities like learning, socialization and physical activity—key components of “environmental enrichment”—lead to the growth and development of nerve tissue that will become new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. Such enrichment can include all manner of stimuli, but a group of researchers at the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) wanted to find out exactly how much of that neurogenic stimulus is due solely to exercise. Writing in the journal Learning and Memory, Tali Kobilo and coworkers went back to that most basic of lab experiments, mice running on an exercise wheel. Using a variety of conditions to permutate the mix of enrichment, running, running with other enrichment, and controls, the investigators concluded: “Here we show that running is the critical factor in stimulating adult hippocampal neurogenesis and enhancing mature BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor] peptide levels. Moreover, enrichment in the absence of running does not increase adult hippocampal neurogenesis or BDNF levels in the hippocampus.” In addition: “New cell proliferation, survival, neuron number, and neurotrophin levels were enhanced only when running was accessible” to the test animals. “We conclude that exercise is the critical factor mediating increased BDNF levels and adult hippocampal neurogenesis.”

As a treatment modality for drug and alcohol addiction, physical exercise is often effective, quite well studied—and free. It is the most boring, the most mundane, the most predictable exhortation of them all—or perhaps the second most predictable, after the admonition to Eat Less.

Perhaps, suggests Jennifer Matesa in her book, The Recovering Body , it would be well to remember that doctors are not “paid to prescribe exercise.” She quotes Harvard’s biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman: “It is often said that exercise is medicine, but a more correct statement is that insufficient regular exercise is abnormal and pathological.” Matesa musters a chorus of trainers and exercise-oriented recovery experts to bolster her argument that simple exercise remains the single most overlooked element in most people’s recovery programs.

Matesa, whom I first encountered as the author of the excellent blog Guinevere Gets Sober, and later worked with at the online addiction and recovery magazine, The Fix, offers advice to “clean up the wreckage and recover the body’s health” during sobriety, and divides her book into five practices: exercise, nutrition, sleep, sexuality, and mindfulness meditation.

Body recovery is complex, Matesa writes. “You’re raising the levels of endorphins and dopamine in the body. You’re reregulating the body’s metabolism—its capacity to burn energy efficiently. You’re not just exercising biceps and triceps and deltoids or even chest, back, legs, and core. You’re also exercising the internal organs: heart, lungs, circulatory system, central nervous system (including the brain), and digestive system. You’re even exercising the skin by making it sweat.”

While one of the best things about exercise is that you can start at any point, with or without prior experience, there is a sense in which former jocks may have an edge here. Matesa interviews a former sports freak and recovering heroin addict who found her way back to the “cognitive- and muscle-memory” that gave her a head start in understanding what a fitness program is composed of. One thing that prevents people from working out, the former jock says, “is that they don’t know what to do and they feel overwhelmed. And we addicts get overwhelmed easily.”

A medical director of a Palm Beach detox center suggested that “twelve minutes of exercise per day with a heart rate of greater than one hundred twenty beats per minute” is enough to restore healthy sleeping patterns, for example. “The people who do that, their sleep architecture returns to normal in half the time that it takes people who don’t exercise. Twelve minutes.”

Matesa’s credentials as a recovering addict are impressive: alcohol abuse and opiate addiction, compulsive overeating, and shoplifting. As with many addictive shoplifters, she didn’t even need the things she stole. “The security woman pulled me into a messy, windowless back room, shut the door, looked me up and down, noted my Coach bag and middle-class clothing, regarded the stolen property in her hand [cheap earbuds], and said slowly, ‘you need to seek help.’” The book is published by Hazelden, and Matesa hews to the basic structure of 12 Step recovery programs. She also backs the controversial thinking of Dr. Gabor Mate, who believes that all addictions are the result of adverse childhood experiences, not genetics or any other physiological predilection.

Despite the years she logged with opiates, “my first chemical of abuse was sugar, my first addictive behavior was eating…. I eat sugar because it does all kinds of things drugs do…. when I was a kid, my diet was at least 80 percent refined and processed food, and almost all of that, essentially, was sugar. At age ten, I looked forward to my after-school snack the way my Dad looked forward to his first beer when he got home.”

She notes that a number of published studies have shown that “addicts in the first six months of recovery use sweet foods and refined, processed foods—junk food—to satisfy cravings for drugs and alcohol.” In addition, “sensible eating habits are seldom part of recovery strategies in detox and rehab facilities—this was a concern echoed by a number of treatment experts I talked with.”

“Recovery does not promise beauty or riches, everlasting affection and security or even sustained peace of mind,” Matesa concludes. “It promises that we’ll be able to negotiate one day—this one—in our right minds, awake. We get good at what we practice.”

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1 comment:

Mark said...

"New cell proliferation, survival, neuron number, and neurotrophin levels were enhanced only when running was accessible” to the test animals"

What kind of cellular regeneration or proliferation can be expected? Does it help with mindfulness and concentrtion?

It seems to be widely accepted in our society that alcoholism does not necessarily compromise intelligence. The new findings on the growth of neurons has strengthened that. However, whether it kills or not, we know that structurally the cell is impaired. It is not dead, it is just mangled.

Could this help with that?

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