Alcoholism Research: The Role of Exercise in Treating Alcohol Use Disorders

In short, what is the study about?

We performed a scrutinized review of the literature to select those studies that investigated the effects of exercise in treating alcohol use disorders (AUD). In addition, the psychological and physiological mechanisms that contribute to the action of exercise were also reviewed, highlighting the role of β-endorphin and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in AUDs. The possible association between physical activity, the endogenous opioid system and the desire for alcohol was also discussed.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

It seems that exercise can have significant effects on increasing physical performance and decreasing the urge to drink alcohol, improving the abstinence rate and reducing the number of drinks. Furthermore, excessive alcohol intake might have an effect on the endogenous opioid system causing a central and peripheral deficiency in β-endorphin, the major representative of the endogenous opioid system. Exercise can increase the levels of β-endorphin and lead to decrements in the urge of alcohol drinking. There is a proposed model linking the opioid system with exercise and alcohol intake. According to this, alcohol and exercise increase the levels of β-endorphin leading to a pleasant feeling. Since exercise increases the levels of β-endorphin it could work as a substitute to drinking alcohol to get to that pleasurable effect.

How are these findings important in practice?

The European Union has the highest percentages of alcohol drinkers worldwide, which hugely increases the health and socioeconomic burden of the member states. Excessive alcohol use is the third leading risk factor for disease following tobacco and blood pressure. Due to the physiological, psychological and social consequences of AUD, there are a number of proposed treatment models, including pharmacological and psychological support. It seems that exercise could have an adjunctive role in these treatment models of AUD.

What other studies can be recommended to further an understanding/application of the findings?

Exercise has a pleiotropic beneficial effect on health. The same positive effects appear to apply to a person with AUD. Further studies need to be performed in order to identify the potential mechanism underneath the positive effects of exercise on alcohol urge. Studies on hormones, peptides and neurotransmitter systems associated with the mechanisms of reward, reinforcement, alcohol addiction and their connection to exercise are scarce and should be performed in the future. Furthermore, studies that will examine the effects of exercise on cognitive function and the underlying mechanism behind it are warranted. Finally, acute and chronic exercise interventions are required to provide support for the hypothesis that exercise can act as an alternative to alcohol use due to its similar action on distinct components of the central nervous system involved in the addictive processes.


Primary paper: Manthou, E., Georgiakouli, K., Fatouros, I. G., Gianoulakis, G., Theodorakis, Y., Jamurtas, A. Z. (2016). Role of exercise in the treatment of alcohol use disorders. Biomedical Reports, 4(5), 535-545. DOI: 10.3892/br.2016.626

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Thanasis JamurtasThanasis Jamurtas is a Professor of Biochemistry of Exercise at University of Thessaly, Greece. He received his Ph.D. from University of North Carolina-Greensboro, USA, and his main interests, besides the effects of exercise on addictive behaviors, include exercise associated redox perturbations and exercise-induced muscle inflammation. He published more than 140 papers in refereed journals and he is the author of two books.

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Latest update: December 29, 2016
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