Inflammation is the immune system’s response to infection, injury, or stress. Localized or temporary inflammation – such as when you sprain your ankle, or fight off an infection – is not a bad thing. However, persistently elevated levels of pro-inflammatory compounds in the body is a factor in almost all chronic health problems.
The relationship between chronic inflammation and depression is becoming better understood by the day. I have long suspected a similar causal link between inflammation and alcohol addiction, but have not had evidence to back up this hunch. However, in the past week, two fascinating studies in this area have emerged that deserve some attention:
- Rats that were bred to drink like alcoholics (equivalent of 1 bottle of vodka per day for a human) cut their voluntary drinking by 80-90% within 48 hours after being injected with human stem cells that reduced brain inflammation – and 1 injection reduced drinking for up to 1 month. (source)
- Alcoholic rats given a non-THC version of CBD oil, a known anti-inflammatory substance, reduced their alcohol-seeking behaviors and prevented high impulsivity often seen in people with a history of alcohol dependence – and a 1-week administration of CBD oil produced these effects for 5 months, even though CBD itself left their systems after 3 days. (source)
People with alcohol addiction cannot (yet) go to their doctor and get stem cell injections. The major takeaway from these two studies is that inflammation has been identified as a major factor contributing to relapse.
If you can decrease inflammation, you can decrease your risk of sliding back into alcohol addiction.
CBD oil is a very promising anti-inflammatory supplement that I have discussed elsewhere on my site, as well as in my online course. However, CBD oil is not the only supplement with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3 fish oil, magnesium, vitamin C, polyphenol-rich herbs like ashwagandha, and nearly every other supplement and lifestyle strategy discussed on this website can help to lower inflammation in the brain and body.
In the video below, I offer some thoughts on the relation between inflammation and alcohol addiction.
The Role Of Inflammation In Alcohol Addiction
As we can see in the chart below, chronic alcohol consumptions leads to inflammation in the body and brain.
It has long been known that alcohol causes inflammation. Yet the reverse also seems to be true: chronic inflammation can increase the risk of alcohol addiction. In the chart below, we see that traumatic brain injury increases susceptibility to alcohol use disorders – in large part by causing neuro-inflammation.
It’s no surprise that traumatic brain injuries, often suffered by professional football players and MMA fighters, increases the risk of addiction, depression, and suicide later on. But research has shown that psychological stress – not just getting hit in the head really hard – can also elevate levels of inflammation. (source)
Brain inflammation causes distortions in brain chemical balance and reduces the production of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, and dopamine.
In particular, inflammatory cytokines have been shown to inhibit dopamine and serotonin production as well as increase the reuptake of serotonin, diminishing its positive effects on mood.
In the case of alcohol addiction, we have a vicious cycle involving brain inflammation. Most often, psychological stress combines with an underlying predisposition for alcohol addiction to spark the initial phase of alcohol dependence.
Over time, alcohol wreaks havoc on brain chemical balance, in large part by contributing to brain inflammation. When the person attempts to quit drinking, few (if any) efforts are made to naturally support the brain-body system. Simply quitting drinking is not enough to reduce the damage caused by alcohol.
Moreover, stress chemicals like glutamate and cortisol surge during withdrawal, exacerbating inflammation as well as depression, anxiety, and insomnia – the big three symptoms of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Most often, the person feels defeated and simply returns to drinking alcohol, increasing the severity of the addiction and causing further damage to the brain-body system.
But what if alcohol-dependent people were given specific guidance for supporting their brain-body systems and reducing dangerous levels of inflammation? Is it possible that they, like the rats in the aforementioned studies, might experience an effortless decrease in relapse rates or episodes of heavy drinking?
The evidence for an integrated brain-body healing approach for “mental health” issues is beginning to pile up:
- A recent study showed that treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs improves symptoms of clinical depression. (source)
- In a randomized controlled trial, people with clinical depression who ate only whole foods for three months experienced more improvement in symptoms than people who received social support. (source)
- A recent study found that low-cost magnesium, a mineral known to decrease inflammation in the body, is as effective as SSRIs in treating clinical depression. (source)
- Studies in the emerging field of “psychobiotics” – exploring the links between gut microbiome and brain function – indicate that the microbiome plays a large role in regulating inflammation levels and supporting the production of hormones and neurotransmitters required for optimal mental health. (source)
Many people experience depression as a major symptom of PAWS. A common practice in mainstream rehab centers is to immediately prescribe SSRI antidepressants, treating the symptom but not the root cause. Antidepressants have not been shown to reliably prevent alcohol relapse.
Removing alcohol from your lifestyle is a huge first step in reducing inflammation and feeling physically better. However, as we know, the vast majority of people who quit drinking heavily feel so miserable that they slide back into addiction. Here are a few easy methods that have been shown to reduce inflammation and improve the way you feel:
- Take supplements that supply the body with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and neurotransmitter precursors
- Drink enough water, avoid processed foods, and eat whole foods and probiotics (e.g., yogurt, kombucha, kimchi)
- Cut out unnecessary psychological stressors – negative influences and people, bad habits, negative thought patterns
- Take advantage of holistic methods known to decrease inflammation – yoga, hot/cold baths or showers, sauna, cryotherapy, meditation, and massage
Years ago, I would have written off most of the above as a bunch of fluffy nonsense. If you’re still a skeptic like I once was, I hope that the research included in this section gives you food for thought.
Most addiction recovery programs pay lip service to physical repair after quitting drinking.
Perhaps this is why the rehab business is a $35 billion industry with a 90% failure rate.
You can learn much more about how to reduce inflammation, manage stress, and optimize your alcohol recovery by enrolling in my online course, Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0.
I hope you enjoyed this article and video! Be sure to subscribe to the Fit Recovery channel on YouTube.
If you have any questions about brain inflammation and alcohol relapse, feel free to leave them in the comment box below.