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Harm Reduction — Motivate yourself with awareness of healthy changes

This is a good place to get information about how to learn to manage your drinking or using if complete abstinence doesn’t seem like a reasonable goal. Start here to look for yourself.

“Harm Reduction” and “Reduced-Risk Drinking” are terms for alternative goals along the path of recovery. In the past, abstinence was considered the only accepted goal but recent research has shown that some people can learn to reduce and manage their drinking while others are more comfortable with abstinence. Because Reduced-Risk Drinking is controversial, especially in the United States, there has not been much research on the topic. In Canada and Europe, where it tends to be called Harm Reduction, there is greater acceptance that this is an acceptable goal for some people.

This is a good place to get information about how to learn to manage your drinking or using if complete abstinence doesn’t seem like a reasonable goal. Start here to look for yourself.

The Body’s Response to Sobriety

Staying healthy is a motivating force for many people. This section draws from the literature on he body’s healing response to sobriety from alcohol.

Alcohol affects every cell in your body. Let’s look at two body systems that take the brunt of the damage from alcohol—your brain and your gastrointestinal (GI) system—but heal quickly in sobriety. Some healing to the brain and GI system occurs naturally in early sobriety, and you can boost your body’s recovery with exercise and a healthy diet.

Alcohol has immediate effects on your brain—one or two drinks make us feel relaxed and confident. Too many drinks cause clumsiness, slurred speech, lapses in memory and judgment. People who are drunk get lost because alcohol damages the parts of your brain involved in navigation. Overtime, heavy drinking reduces the volume of—shrinks—the brain itself. Alcohol also slows the pace of communication in the brain. For example, the delay in the neural connections between the brain and the nerves of the eyes is what causes distorted or double vision while drinking heavily.

Research on short-term sobriety shows that some of the greatest natural healing in the brain occurs between two weeks and two months of sobriety, including increase in brain volume, and repair of and increased speed of neural connections.

The GI system reacts to alcohol as though it were poison. Vomiting and diarrhea are early consequences of excess dinking. Overtime, heavy drinking reduces the ability of your GI system to absorb nutrients resulting in a state of malnutrition. This is sometimes referred to as “leaky gut syndrome”.

Even brief periods of abstinence can partly reverse this process and promote healing of a “leaky gut”. This means your body will be better able to absorb the nutrients you put into your system with a healthy diet.

Mainstream Your Recovery

As you begin your journey of recovery, you may want to record your weight, waist circumference, and blood pressure. Make a list of health problems or physical discomforts that you have whether or not you think they are related to drinking. This information will help you observe the healing of your body during the first days, weeks and months of sobriety.

This idea came from one of my patients: Health clubs, gyms, and even work places often organize group health challenges. My patient joined a 30-day challenge at her gym to reduce sugar in the diet but in her heart she knew she was doing this to reduce her wine drinking. At the first group meeting, she introduced herself and said that she had developed some unhealthy drinking habits and wanted to stop. Four other members of the group identified the same goal. These five people formed a supportive sub-group through the 30-day challenge and are now meeting to explore if and how to drink again in a healthier way.

Mainstreaming your recovery into your overall plan for healthy living can reduce negative feelings and increase your chances of success as you define it.

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