Anything that aids relapse prevention, especially when dealing with a drug as challenging to recover from using as cocaine, is welcome, and scientists have narrowed in on exercise as one aid that’s very worthy of consideration. A 2018 study conducted at the University of Buffalo demonstrated that the combination of stress reduction and mood elevation that accompanies exercise, especially aerobic activities, led to a reduction in cocaine relapse incidents tied to anxiety and negative emotions. Given the complex neurological and chemical factors that come into play with cocaine use disorders, anything that delivers such consistent results across large groups is considered a ray of hope. It’s also interesting to learn how the process works.
Cocaine Relapse Risk
Stress is easily one of the biggest factors that those invested in relapse prevention have to keep an eye on. This is particularly the case with people who have formed cocaine use habits as the drug’s strong sense of energy and linkage to a perception of heightened problem-solving ability often make it a go-to when things get tough. Exercise serves to reduce stress and also give a sense of stability, making it an ideal choice for those who have worries about a cocaine relapse.
One of the most concerning aspects of the cocaine recovery process is that there is no single class of drugs that works to help everyone get off it, unlike what is seen when people are detoxing from alcohol or opioids. Worse, the onset of withdrawal feelings from cocaine can set in within 90 minutes of getting the last fix. Cardiovascular episodes have been tied to cocaine withdrawal symptoms. In fact, exercise appears to be the closest thing to a broadly beneficial choice for discouraging cocaine relapse behavior.
The role that the release of dopamine plays in a number of addiction patterns appears across scientific literature. Cocaine, like most of the popular drugs used worldwide, is often correlated with a dopamine release. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that serves to reinforce reward-seeking behaviors. In nature, this encourages animals to hunt in certain spots, seek to have sex and engage in nurturing activities within their social groups. Unfortunately, the dopamine reinforcement cycle can be triggered by almost anything a person gets a rush from or enjoys, including using cocaine.
On the upside, the same release of mood-enhancing chemicals can also be triggered by aerobic activity. Regularly running can induce what’s thought of as the classic runner’s high, the enjoyment that many committed runners get from the experience. This means that exercise can, at least to some extent, serve as a replacement for the high that comes with consuming cocaine.
Cocaine also has a bad tendency to fiddle with the whole dopamine system. Normally, the body picks up excess dopamine in the system, but cocaine gets in the way. This leaves the dopamine attached to receiving cells, causing them to become overactivated and enhancing the positive feeling of being on the drug. In fact, this is what leads many users to claim that the drug feels literally better than sex. Such chemical action also plays a role in building up a tolerance.
Exercise tends to activate serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has a strong relationship with the feeling of happiness and well-being. Disturbingly, cocaine has been shown to vacuum up serotonin in the body. This means that once the body comes down off of using cocaine, the person can crash hard. Serotonin-based therapies are being explored heavily as potential treatments for people facing cocaine relapse, but the simplest way for you to get a serotonin release may be to go for a jog or play some basketball.
Glucose metabolism in the brains of individuals with regular exposure to cocaine is significantly reduced. MRIs performed on these patients show a major drop in orbitofrontal cortex activity, especially in regions tied to decisions that require a degree of restraint. Over time, this erosion of decision-making quality becomes a negative feedback loop, increasing the likelihood of further drug use.
We know from the massive amount of research on diabetes cases that exercise is a prime engine for restarting glucose regulation in the body. Just as the drop in glucose metabolism can cause problems during an addiction cycle, a rise in glucose may serve to improve decision-making and curb risk-taking.
The Limbic System
Major memory centers in the brain are influenced by cocaine. The role that dopamine plays in imprinting memories is critical to the influence on the limbic system. Normally, the excitement that comes from successfully surviving, such as getting a drink of water when you’re extremely thirsty, leads to a release of dopamine, reinforcing your need to drink. Cocaine exposure leads to a dopamine overload, causing conscious memories of cocaine use to be strongly imprinted into the memory. Studies have shown that cocaine users who are simply exposed to images of appropriate drug paraphernalia will have their brains light up in anticipation of receiving cocaine. This is what drives that aggressive compulsion that many with cocaine use disorders have to acquire the drug, even if it means skipping food.
Exercise causes a dopamine release, and this leads to the imprinting of new positive memories attached to the experience. There’s some evidence that people who find certain aerobic activities like running to be boring may benefit from picking more engaging ones, such as tennis or basketball. Games that have win conditions and scoring procedures can also reinforce rewards, but individuals should be careful to choose activities that promote cardio health.
We tend to think of our genes as relatively static, but the arrival of chemicals like cocaine in the body can cause drastic shifts in gene expression. Genes that code for dopamine receptors appear to be especially vulnerable to the influences of cocaine, and breakdowns in how the neurotransmitters work can be caused by cocaine consumption. In addition to the normal processes that lead to someone building up a tolerance, these epigenetic processes can accelerate it. Epigenetic shifts can also be passed along to offspring.
Exercise and overall health improvements have been tied to a reduction in genetic coding errors. Getting the body back to a state where it can fix genetic coding errors caused by cocaine is hugely beneficial.
Rebuilding Reward Pathways
The brain is fairly pliable, especially when it comes to its sense of reward. Just as reward pathways once functioned without the presence of cocaine, they can be rebuilt to work without it again. A process of substitution, however, tends to work best, and that’s where exercise really shines as an option.
Endorphin levels rise after even a single session of exercise. Intriguingly, the University of Buffalo research team showed in tests with lab rats that even one session on a running wheel improved the level of relapse prevention gained from an activity. In other words, from the time you finish your first run, you’ll be in a better position to avoid cocaine relapse than if you had simply sat around. Even more impressive, the rats voluntarily chose to spend more time on running wheels even when they had access to a chamber where they could get cocaine. Simply having an option makes a major difference, and exercise is an excellent choice.
Developing a structured routine, in general, tends to help people in recovery. Just as much as it’s important to focus on doing chores, making your bed or prepping meals, exercise is something that can be built into a routine, too. It also solves one of the larger problems that many folks in recovery encounter: a sense of boredom. Simply blocking out an hour each day to go for a good jog can alleviate boredom.
Many habits that people form in relation to drugs and alcohol are stress-related, as anyone who ever felt thankful to start partying on Friday night after a long work week can attest. Repeating these behaviors over and over can make the stress release even stronger, especially once the brain becomes conditioned to expect a chance to “let off some steam.” Finding an outlet for stress release is particularly important for individuals who have developed habits of cutting loose while using cocaine.
Depression and anxiety also play roles in relapses. Exercise is often encouraged as a remedy for depression and anxiety regardless of the presence of other concerns, such as addiction. There are a number of potential mechanisms in play, including the simple benefits of activity as a disruption of an uninteresting existence. Those who run outdoors may also gain an added benefit from being exposed to microbes that promote a sense of well-being. As an added advantage, brain functions tied to immune response also improve.
The same reward pathways that get hijacked by drugs also can get hijacked by the dopamine release that comes from the social life attached to the drug scene. It’s not an accident that nightclubs are built to be engines to produce social rewards. For those who have addiction concerns, however, further reinforcement of these feelings often has a compounding effect.
Exercise, though, offers many chances for socialization and positive reward reinforcement. Making friends in a sports league, for example, may help fill the gap left by not partying with old friends who still do cocaine. Even adopting a running partner can have benefits as supporting others in self-improvement often makes it easier to stay on a disciplined path.
Poor overall physical health tends to be an impediment in relapse prevention efforts. Cocaine has a radical impact throughout the body, negatively hitting the brain, heart and circulatory system. Fortunately, the benefits of exercise accrue quickly. In light of the fact that individuals trying to avoid cocaine relapse are at heightened risk for cardiovascular episodes, it’s a good thing to start getting the body in shape as soon as possible.
Self-administration of an exercise regimen may be beneficial, but a larger and more structured treatment program might be more advantageous. Cocaine is an especially hard drug to kick, with around two-thirds of individuals reporting relapse issues within a few months of quitting. Stress levels tend to go up quickly when the body is no longer receiving the drug, and a crushing sense of despair can hit when dopamine levels start to stabilize.
It’s also important to keep in mind that cocaine relapse should not be taken as a sign of defeat. This is critical for individuals to keep in mind, but their supporting friends and family members particularly need to remember it. Having people around who can be supportive is a big part of building a relapse prevention program. By adding in exercise, people can also tap their supporters as running buddies for an additional bonus.