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Heal the body, heal the brain. It’s a mantra with profound meaning for anyone in recovery, since recent studies show it’s possible to reverse some types of addiction-related brain damage.

“The brain is very forgiving,” says Dr. Ralph Carson, an addictions expert and author of The Brain Fix. “In most cases, the potential for healing is very good.”

How you treat your body — with your habits for sleep, nutrition, exercise and mindfulness — has a profound effect on recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, says Carson, who holds a doctorate in nutrition and has more than 20 years of experience helping people recover from addictions.

A Capacity for Healing

Decades ago, scientists considered the brain to be like a rock. They believed that any damage to the neural cells that do our thinking was permanent.

“We were taught that once you lose a brain cell, it’s lost forever and that was very discouraging,” Carson says. “In the last 20 years, because of brain images, we’ve learned that yes, its very likely that under the right conditions — through stimulation, therapy, proper nutrition and sleep — cells can in fact be replaced and the brain can be rewired.”

Far from being a rock, the brain is more like silly putty, Carson says, able to continually adapt and reorganize itself through its plasticity. This accounts for the amazing recoveries of some patients who have pervasive cerebral injuries.

Brain imaging techniques are currently being used by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to evaluate treatments that alleviate some drug-related brain damage. For example, the longer opiate abusers stay in methadone therapy, the more their particular biochemical brain abnormalities approach normal.

A growing body of research supports the brain’s capacity for self-healing. Alcoholics who stopped drinking had a 2 percent increase in brain volume within 38 days of quitting and also did better on concentration and attention tests, according to a study by the University of Wuerzburg in Germany. Aerobic exercise like walking, running or bicycling was associated with less damage to the brain’s “white matter” among heavy alcohol users in a study published by the University of Colorado Boulder in 2013.

Dopamine’s Critical Role in Recovery

It’s not enough for an addict to stop abusing drugs or alcohol, Carson says. Lifelong recovery requires therapies that foster appropriate ways to release dopamine — the key neurotransmitter involved in addiction and the brain’s pleasure circuits.

Often, a person in recovery will replace drinking or drugs with an unhealthy sugar addiction, Carson says. Or they’ll have no game plan for dealing with intense cravings.

Carson says that when he meets with clients, he asks them one question: “What are you going to use instead of the drug or the behavior that brought you into treatment, to make dopamine? And if they don’t have an answer to that, they’ll relapse and be back in treatment again.”

Making New Connections

Changing the brain requires commitment, and finding healthy ways to alleviate pain or increase pleasure (dopamine). That’s where gratitude, hope and healthy relationships can make a difference.

Learning to alter the stress response is also important, Carson says, noting that forgiveness is critical for brain healing. “When you don’t forgive and have animosity or jealousy or vindictiveness, those particular thoughts produce Cortisol, and Cortisol will kill specific brain cells, particularly those you want to inhabit your happiness area of the brain.”

Eating nutrient-dense foods is essential to repair the ravages of addiction, which are often compounded by malnutrition.

“The worst diet for someone (recovering from addiction) would be low carbohydrate, the Paleo Diet or the Wheat Belly Diet because they’re not getting the energy to heal,” Carson says. Instead, a post-rehab nutrition plan should focus on frequent small meals (every 3-4 hours) of complex carbohydrates with some fiber at every sitting. At least 2 grams per day of Omega 3 fatty acids — the equivalent of two servings of tuna or salmon per week — will also improve brain functioning and plasticity, Carson says.

Sleep is critical to brain health, Carson says, adding that people in recovery should work with their doctor to eliminate sleep aids over time, so they can enter a more restorative sleep phase. “They really need to focus on sleep because that’s when all this healing, all this neuroplasticity and regeneration is orchestrated.”

Ralph Carson, The Brain Fix

Building a Healthier Brain

In his book, The Brain Fix, Carson offers a straightforward approach to stimulate brain plasticity and help the brain rewire itself for healing.

Recovery from addiction is demanding and results will not be immediate, Carson says. But research shows the brain is changeable, and a healthier brain and body will support lifelong recovery.

“It’s just amazing how you get the damage to the brain, and then can stimulate cells to grow,” Carson says. “We can see that tissue is missing, then you do treatment and now we can see those cells return. In other words, I’m looking at an addict’s brain and they have regenerated cells.”

He offers these strategies to optimize brain health:

  • Make sure that complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains account for about half of your calories
  • To get as many phytonutrients as possible, have a variety of at least three fruits and five servings of darkly pigmented vegetables daily.
  • Get 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day.
  • Eat four to five meals and snacks each day consisting of complex carbohydrates, protein, and a small amount of fat.
  • Minimize simple sugars and reduce or eliminate artificial sweeteners.
  • Have two 4- to 6-ounce servings of cold-water fatty fish such as salmon or tuna each week or 2 grams of fish-oil capsules daily to supply the daily amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Limit saturated and trans-fatty acids from foods such as red meat and commercially baked snacks.
  • Take a multivitamin and mineral tablet, along with plenty of sunshine and 1,000 milligrams of calcium, will provide additional insurance that you’re getting the needed micronutrients.
  • Drink two quarts of water per day and work at keeping your caffeine consumption low.
  • Get twenty to sixty minutes of exercise or physical activity daily, at least at a moderate level.
  • Yoga will not only improve your flexibility and relaxation, it can also incorporate meditation. Practice it frequently.
  • It is imperative that you make whatever adjustments, short of taking medication, that are necessary to ensure seven to nine hours of quality sleep.
  • Build a strong spiritual foundation and belief system to keep a positive state of mind. Foster a spirit of hope, belief, self-esteem, forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, altruism and strong relationships.

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