Smoking Slows Brain Recovery During Alcoholism Treatment

In America, alcohol use and cigarette use are two of the most likely sources of premature, preventable fatalities. In addition, people who combine smoking with excessive alcohol intake have greater overall health risks than people who only smoke or people who only drink excessively. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of U.S. researchers examined the impact that cigarette use has on brain function recovery in people receiving treatment for alcohol dependence (i.e., alcoholism). These researchers concluded that continuing cigarette use during alcoholism treatment can delay the restoration of normal brain function.

Alcohol and the Brain

Alcohol is an intoxicant. This means that, among its other effects, the substance has a toxic or poisonous impact on the health of human beings. The body can limit the dangers of alcohol-related harm if drinking remains at a low level; however, high levels of alcohol can trigger a range of significant short- and long-term problems, including substantially altered brain function. Common short-term indications of alcohol’s damaging brain effects include diminished memory, a reduced ability to coordinate muscle movements, a reduced ability to respond appropriately to changes in the environment and a reduced ability to think or speak clearly. In addition, a person who drinks a lot of alcohol in a relatively short amount of time can experience a form of temporary amnesia called a “blackout,” which centers on gaps in the memory of events that take place while that person is intoxicated. A sustained pattern of excessive alcohol intake can lead to lasting impairments in the ability to remember things or otherwise think normally. In addition, regular heavy drinkers can develop severe forms of brain damage related to a two-part condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome combines several relatively short-lasting indications of extreme brain injury (collectively referred to as Wernicke’s encephalopathy) with a permanent and highly destabilizing form of psychosis (Korsakoff’s psychosis).

Alcoholism and Cigarettes

There is a strong connection between alcoholism and cigarette use. According to data compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a person affected by alcoholism has a roughly 200 percent greater chance of smoking than the rest of the adult U.S. population. Conversely, a person addicted to nicotine/tobacco has a roughly 300 percent greater chance of being diagnosed with alcoholism than the rest of the adult population. The link between alcoholism and smoking is so firmly established that people diagnosed with alcoholism actually die from smoking-related causes more often than they die from alcohol-related causes.

Interference With Alcoholism Recovery

People in recovery from alcoholism commonly regain at least part of their normal brain function when they abstain from alcohol for extended amounts of time. In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco compared the rates of brain function recovery in three groups of people in alcoholism treatment: people who currently smoke cigarettes, people who used to smoke cigarettes and people who have never smoked cigarettes. For each of these three groups, the researchers conducted tests designed to measure functions that included the ability to learn, the ability to recall stored memories, the ability to rapidly process incoming information and the ability to use a form of critical short-term memory called working memory. The researchers concluded that after eight months of alcohol abstinence, both current smokers and former smokers recovering from alcoholism exhibit slower brain processing speeds than people in recovery who never smoked cigarettes. They also concluded that, in several other key respects, current smokers have worse recovery outcomes after eight months of abstinence than former smokers. Overall, people in alcoholism recovery who have never smoked regain their normal brain function faster than their counterparts who smoke or used to smoke. In fact, after eight months, the targeted brain functions of the recovering alcoholics in the study who had never smoked largely resembled the functions of people who have never been affected by alcoholism. The study’s authors note that older smokers in alcoholism recovery typically experience a slower restoration of brain function than younger smokers in recovery. All told, they believe that past and current patterns of cigarette use have an important impact on the brain health of people in alcoholism treatment.18

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