This research was picked up by the excellent Castle Craig blog in March and looks at how being a smoker makes it harder to stop drinking.
Researchers at Yale University have found that smoking might be hampering treatment for alcohol abuse. Their research paper (“Tobacco smoking interferes with GABA receptor neuroadaptations during prolonged alcohol withdrawal”) indicates that, contrary to popular belief, continuing to smoke while abstaining from drinking does not make the process of withdrawal from alcohol any easier to manage – and in fact may be making recovery from alcohol addiction far more difficult than it already is.
An airbag for the nervous system
As part of the study, the brains of the research subjects – made up of a mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic volunteers – were scanned to measure the levels of GABA (A). The GABA receptors in the brain control our responses to stressful situations. They can be thought of as acting like a kind of airbag for the nervous system: in situations of stress they slow down brain activity and reduce anxiety, just like the actual airbag in a car, which cushions the force of impact in the event of a crash.
In chemical dependents and alcoholics this cushioning effect is already not functioning at full capacity, and smoking, while no doubt providing an illusion of relaxation to many, could in fact be aggravating the problem.
The results indicated a link between the levels of GABA(A) in the brains of those who continued to smoke while abstaining from alcohol. Levels of alcohol craving among those who continued to smoke during abstinence were also found to be as much as twice as high as among the non-smokers.
Cigarettes, the recovering alcoholic’s best friend?
For some alcoholics in recovery, however, smoking can be one way to ease their withdrawal from drinking, and it is well known that many alcoholics do indeed smoke. Indeed, a cigarette can be someone’s best friend, especially when that person is struggling with alcohol withdrawal.
But, as discussed above, this new research from Yale University shows that this so-called best friend could in fact be acting as an obstacle to recovery from alcoholism. In an ideal world, therefore, recovering alcoholics would do well to give up smoking, too.
The hard reality of withdrawal
That said, curbing two addictions at the same time is something many alcoholics would say is impossible. So while the lessons of this research are quite clear, in the chaotic world of alcoholism it may be a tall order indeed for someone to kick a nicotine habit while also trying to quit drinking, particularly in the early days of recovery.
I completely concur that it’s a big ask in the early days and I stopped smoking on a daily basis a year before I stopped drinking but still had the occasional lapse on a night out. I haven’t smoked since I stopped drinking though and if I was to relapse on anything now it would probably be a fag rather than a drink …… What’s your experience?
PS Today should have been the day that I shared Veronica and I’s discussion about Step 9 but we’ve hit a technical glitch. As you may or may not be aware Veronica is on maternity leave so we’ve decided to continue releasing steps 10 – 12 as planned over the next few weeks and we’ll circle back on step 9 when she’s back. Apologies 🙂
Edited to add 5th May 2015: Prim linked this brilliant blog by Patrick over at Spiritual River who had this to add about smoking “Part of the path in recovery should include quitting smoking. Why? Because it is another step toward wellness. The holistic path will eliminate bad habits such as smoking. Many in early recovery hang on to this habit for a few years, but eventually people realize that they are still using nicotine to self medicate with, and that it is killing them. Also, those who manage to quit smoking in recovery have less tendency to relapse on drugs and alcohol, too. So quitting smoking is like insurance against relapse.”