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When can I expect to recover? For those considering treatment for a drug or alcohol problem, the answer may be “sooner than you think.” Discover why based on the latest addiction science:
While the journey to freedom from drugs and alcohol is rarely easy and is usually a process that takes time and hard work, a cumulative body of research suggests that for those who choose to undergo treatment, the health pay-offs can begin to kick in surprisingly early in recovery.
These early recovery benefits have been documented in studies tracking the medical progress of at least three substance abuse treatment populations:
- recovering alcoholics
- drug addicts, particularly meth and cocaine users
- clients with a dual diagnosis, meaning a substance use disorder (SUD) that co-exists with another mental disorder.
This article will present what we now know from existing research regarding the relatively early health benefits of substance abuse treatment as they pertain to these three SUD treatment populations. Such findings hold encouraging implications for those considering treatment for a drug or alcohol problem. The overall picture that emerges is thus a source of hope for any person grappling with drug or alcohol addiction—and for their friends, family and loved ones.
The Early Benefits of Alcohol Treatment
Just how early do the recovery pay-offs of alcohol treatment begin? As early as within four to five weeks of treatment and abstinence, it would seem, according to a 2004 study at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Alcohol damages brain structure and function, impairing cognitive abilities related to reasoning, planning, and remembering. One reason may be because heavy drinking and intoxication inhibit the formation of new neurons in a region of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory.
Strikingly, though, the UNC-Chapel Hill researchers found that even after only one week of abstinence, there was “a huge burst in the number of new cells being born,” in the words of the study co-author Dr. Kim Nixon, in a November 5, 2004 news release by UNC-Chapel Hill. This rapid-fire regeneration of neurons in the hippocampus reportedly included a twofold burst in brain cell proliferation by only Day 7 of abstinence.
In another study, this one funded by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse in 2006, researchers made a similarly encouraging discovery related to just how soon the brain can recover from chronic heavy drinking. There they found that recovering alcoholics who had been abstinent for a minimum of six months—the study’s test subjects, all members of the alcohol treatment population, had been abstinent anywhere from six months to 13 years—managed to recover nearly all of the cognitive and mental abilities of their non-alcoholic peers.
Early Recovery Benefits of Treatment for Meth and Cocaine Addiction – What the Studies Say
In addition to the roughly eight percent of Americans who suffer from an alcohol use disorder, meth and cocaine addiction describe another significant subsection of the U.S. population, for whom the dangers of not getting treatment include premature death. But those who seek treatment from these potent and dangerous drugs can begin to experience the health benefits of that choice within a relatively short period of abstinence and treatment, according to the research.
For example, just six months of being meth-free were enough to improve the decision-making abilities to recover meth users in treatment, researchers concluded in a 2013 study in the journal, Public Library of Science One. Moreover, once those in the treatment had surpassed the 3-month mark, where meth cravings reportedly peaked, they experienced a progressive decrease in cravings for the drug. These beneficiary effects (a reduction in cravings and improved cognitive abilities) only continued to rise the longer the period of abstinence—but as early as six months into abstinence, the positive effects were clearly noticeable.
Even for cocaine, a drug that has been known to be notoriously hard to recover from, users in 90-plus days of treatment saw a significant improvement in their recovery outcomes: in other words, roughly three months of treatment and abstinence correlated with a big decline in relapse rates. So went the verdict of a National Evaluation of Treatment Outcomes published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Recovery Outcomes for Dual Diagnosis
Like cocaine abuse, dual diagnosis can present its own very real challenges to those affected by addiction, for whom long-term recovery is the goal. A lesser-told story, however, is how relatively early the benefits of treatment kick in—even for those with the co-existing diagnosis of a severe mental disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. A 2009 study in the Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology tracked the clinical outcomes of 228 alcoholics in treatment with a co-occurring disorder of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. At the six-month follow-up mark, 144 of them (63%) had “good clinical outcomes.” The researchers defined a “good clinical outcome” as the absence of heavy drinking and negative, drinking-related consequences.
Similar findings, which point to the relatively quick pay-offs of treatment for recovery, emerged in an earlier study. There, too, a majority of clients with a dual diagnosis reportedly were “good clinical responders” as early as the 26th week following cessation of alcohol use and the onset of treatment.