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How Long Does It Take To Rewire Your Brain From Alcohol?

If you’re searching for answers on how long it takes to rewire the brain, chances are you are struggling and feeling desperate about breaking a habit. When does it get easier?

Maybe you’re experiencing challenges in your journey to sobriety and trying to find out how long it takes for your brain to stop craving something so you have something to hold on to.

If that’s you, you’re not alone. 

Depending on what you’re in recovery from and how long you’ve been using, rewiring the brain can take some time. The good news is it’s possible to undo some of the behavioral and cognitive aspects of long-term substance use, which science shows causes negative changes in the brain.

The question of how long your brain takes to develop new neural pathways and stop rerouting every thought to the substance you’re trying to kick is a good one – and a little complicated. So let’s get into it! 

The Impact of Addiction on the Brain

Whether it’s alcohol, painkillers, or another drug, substances like these impact our brain’s hard wiring and can lead to cognitive problems that are long-lasting. The chemicals in the substances we take enter our bloodstream and brain, inhibiting our ability to do certain things. 

For example, getting so drunk that we slur our words, pass out, or struggle to balance shows how alcohol causes us to lose control of our regular functions and impulses.

At the same time, these chemicals stimulate the brain’s reward center, leading you to crave that feeling repeatedly.

The problem comes in when this becomes a regular thing – and it can damage your brain structure and affect how it functions. Let’s discuss exactly how this happens.

Pink brain connected to a lightbulb
how long does it take to rewire the brain?

Prefrontal Cortex Functioning 

After just a drink or two, you might feel relaxed and comfortable enough to do things you might not generally do when sober. That’s because our prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the part of the brain that manages our reasoning, good judgment, and impulsive behavior – is affected first. 

The feeling of being confident and more ‘out of your comfort zone’ can be addictive, especially for shy people. Some people may chase that feeling of being extroverted and self-assured, so they may drink more or drink more frequently. But these are short-term effects.

The long-term effects of substances, especially alcohol, on the functioning of the PFC, show that it leads to a chronic inability to make good judgment calls.

The higher-order and executive functions of our brains are affected so severely by long-term substance use that researchers see it akin to lesions (actual damage) to the structure of the brain.   

That’s not all, however. The same studies show that those with an alcohol dependency have less volume in terms of white and grey matter in their PFC and frontal lobes. Long-term alcohol use shrinks the brain, affecting your ability to function as usual.

Your ability to remember, solve problems, and multitask will be affected over time, not just in the moment when you’re enjoying a few drinks too many. 

Oh, and that happy-going, extroverted feeling that initially attracted you to drink?

You’ll have to drink more and more to achieve that same level, which starts to shape your personality in ways that makes you more emotionally volatile, even when not drinking. 

Dopamine Levels in the Brain

Dopamine is one of the chemicals in our brain that carries messages between brain cells and the rest of our body, and it’s usually triggered when we experience something pleasant.

It leaves us feeling good because it affects our mood and motivates us. It’s the chemical that makes us want to eat, do something fun, or engage in pleasurable activities. 

When you have a drink or two, your brain produces more dopamine, and we feel pretty good – the term ‘buzzed’ is often used to describe this euphoria. But as you continue, the brain gets used to this increase in dopamine stimulated by alcohol (this applies to other substances, too), so it stops producing it. 

The brain also reduces the number of receptors and increases the dopamine transporters needed to move excess dopamine between brain cells. As the amount of dopamine dips, your mood takes a turn for the worse – which causes you to seek out more of the substance that stimulates dopamine production. 

Interestingly, a recent study indicates that dopamine from alcohol is concentrated in your brain’s reward center. The outcome is that we can no longer naturally produce a feeling of reward or pleasure, requiring us to drink more to stimulate it artificially. 

It’s also why people who drink heavily for a long time often struggle to find pleasure in regular, everyday things. Stuff that used to be fun pales in comparison to the thrill of getting drunk. 

If you’re interested in this topic and have some time in your day, I highly recommend listening to this episode of Huberman Lab with Dr. Anna Lembke. I know, it’s really long, but it will really change how you think about this problem.

Drug-seeking Behavior and Impulse Control

As we’ve seen, the desire to feel how we felt before is an immediate effect of the feel-good substances, thanks to how it affects our brain. Various studies have identified that the cycle of how wanting to repeat the feeling becomes a learned behavior. The more we seek the ‘buzz,’ the more our brain views it as a reward, and the more the behavior becomes habitual.

Experts even suggest that an inability to stop this drug-seeking behavior results from how the brain becomes wired to repeat the experience that feels so good. And often, the addicted brain struggles to delay gratification in the search for that feeling and, which is how we end up struggling to control impulsive behavior.

Brain Scans Demonstrating Changes from Addiction

Many studies include brain imaging and scans to see whether there are actual changes to the brain after long-term use of alcohol and other substances. Alcohol specifically has been identified to cause the following changes in the brain after long-term use:

  • Reduced blood flow to the brain
  • Reduced brain volume – the brain shrinks over time
  • The hippocampus atrophies, and the corpus callosum (a bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two sides of your brain) is altered
  • Lowers the rate of brain cell renewal

This kind of research concludes that drug addiction is a ‘brain disease’ that causes derangements in neural pathways in the brain. 

What Does It Mean to Rewire the Brain?

The concept of rewiring the brain links to the idea that brain structure and functioning can be changed. Professionals call this concept ‘neuroplasticity’ and define it as the brain’s ability to change how it functions in response to stimuli by reorganizing its structure, connections, and functions.

In simple terms, the same way the brain changes after an injury or stroke is similar to how it can change over time when exposed to alcohol or other substances. 

However, this also means that the brain can change again in response to removing those harmful substances. Thus, the brain can be rewired positively during the journey to sobriety. 

How Does Rewiring Work?

We’ve seen how the brain structure can be negatively impacted by long-term use of substances like alcohol, to the point that it can cause physical damage to certain parts of the brain. 

This slows down how rapidly the brain can relay messages and affect the brain’s ability to function as well as it did before.

But by the same token, the brain should be able to repair itself – to a certain extent – or at least build new pathways and improve functioning when the harmful substances are removed from the equation. 

Scientists suggest that brain cells can grow and heal, forming new neurons and new connections. 

If you’re wondering how this could work in relation to addiction, it’s good news – to an extent. 

We know that the brain can heal and learn ways of coping with challenges and managing cravings by creating new neural pathways. 

While this doesn’t mean that all the damage done can be undone, it does provide hope that you can, in fact, recover – and stay sober.

A blue brain lifting weights against a pink backdrop
What does it mean to rewire the brain?

How Long Does It Take to Rewire the Brain From Addiction?

It’s not quite as simple as just sitting down and getting your brain to build new neural pathways, and that means there’s no hard and fast answer to this question. 

Firstly, rewiring requires the brain to be taught to react differently to the same triggers, so it’s clearly not something that happens overnight. 

Secondly, it also depends on many factors, not the least of which is the substance you’re trying to get sober from. Certain substances are much more addictive than others, and some have incredibly challenging withdrawal symptoms. It’s not easy to try rewiring a brain in the throes of withdrawal. (And that’s probably an understatement.)

It’s also important to consider how long you’ve been addicted to the substance. 

Generally, the longer you’ve used the substance, the harder it is (and longer it takes) to rewire the brain. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible: there is clear evidence that the consequences of substance abuse, such as alcoholism, may be reversible. Studies have shown an increase in brain functioning in someone actively in recovery. 

Of course, relapsing undoes any progress made in recovery, meaning you’re not just starting from scratch on the next occasion. Still, you’re adding to the existing damage by using harmful substances again. 

Treatment Options To Help Rewire the Brain From Addiction

Don’t feel discouraged if the above is overwhelming. While the seriousness of addiction should never be underestimated, neither should intensive therapy. 

It also stands to reason that a recovery program with an integrated multi-disciplinary approach will likely have the most positive results. 

Here are some of the best therapeutic avenues for dealing with addiction:

1. Behavioral Therapies to Rewire the Brain

Behavioral therapy is a collective term for specific therapeutic strategies designed to change problematic behaviors. Here are a few examples:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: By seeking to identify the problematic thoughts behind the negative behaviors, CBT teaches you to identify those thoughts as triggers and to deal with them in a healthier way. For example, instead of drinking because you feel shy, the train of thought about being shy can be channeled into a more positive, practiced behavior.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: DBT uses thought and behavior patterns to teach you a more appropriate way of dealing with emotions, coping with stress, and dealing with relationships.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: EMDR is often used to help work with mental health conditions resulting from traumatic events in the past and has been effective in dealing with PTSD. Its use in treating addiction is still fresh, but if one considers the underlying reasons for substance use, it is a logical and helpful therapy to consider.

Self-Help Strategies for Recovery and Rewiring Your Brain

While it’s never recommended to only try self-help techniques for something as serious as addiction, there are things you can do in your day-to-day life to support the recovery process. 

This is particularly true where your brain is concerned. When it comes to healing the brain and forming new, healthy neural pathways, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. 

Here are some excellent add-ons to your therapeutic journey that contribute to your recovery:

1. Mindfulness Training

Mindfulness training, like meditation, is the practice of slowing down and focusing on one specific thing at a time, specifically to remain calm and relaxed and learn to deal with that issue in a positive frame of mind. 

It’s been shown that meditation builds up the areas in your brain that help focus and decision-making, decreasing activity in the anxiety and stress centers. This will be particularly useful for those who must master negative feelings that usually trigger them to drink or partake in drug use.

2. Healthy Sleeping Habits

Getting a good night’s sleep is an underrated form of rewiring your brain, but that’s because not many people know how important sleep actually is. 

Getting enough sleep will positively impact your focus, how alert you are, your ability to solve problems, improve your mood, and prevent impaired judgment. 

Ensuring you get enough sleep will help your brain cement the new things it has learned during the day. 

Think about it this way: you can’t rewire a brain that’s too tired to learn the new wiring. So to keep it in tip-top shape, you should get good quality sleep every day.

3. Regular Exercise

Exercise is not only a good distraction and way to keep busy on your sobriety journey, but the benefits of regular exercise are so beneficial for dealing with the cravings, the withdrawals, and in rewiring your brain. 

Exercise improves mood, reduces inflammation, and promotes a feeling of well-being – all of which create new and positive pathways for your brain as its healing. Exercise is an assistant to the healing process during recovery.

4. Diet and Nutrition

Like with sleep and exercise, diet and nutrition are often afterthoughts in recovery because the main emphasis is on what’s happening in your mind and psyche. But your physical health is just as important. I cannot stress this enough.

Substance abuse, like heavy drinking, is damaging to your body in so many ways. From the high rates of inflammation and the damage to your digestive system to how it ages your skin, these substances leave you looking and feeling tired and worn. Many substances make you gain weight – or, conversely, drop too many pounds.

A healthy diet with nutrient-rich foods will help to rewind this damage and recover to a healthy body weight. Your body is also likely starved of proper nutrients and vitamins, and you’ll need to replace as many of these as you can to keep your energy levels up and avoid feeling sick. 

Lastly, eating a healthy diet is also an exercise in discipline, which is highly beneficial in the recovery process. Taking pride in your health is a good step toward wanting to live a long and healthy life. 

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