How Does Smoking Affect Recovery from Alcohol Use Disorders?

smoking and alcohol

As an article in Medical News Today indicates, it is well known that people with alcohol use disorders show impairment across multiple neurocognitive domains following detoxification from alcohol. This study from the University of California San Francisco, which will be published online in the November 2014 issue of Clinical & Experimental Research, studied the effects of cigarette smoking on cognitive recovery during abstinence.The researchers looked at processing speed, learning and memory, and working memory because these abilities have been shown to be adversely affected by alcohol use disorders and chronic cigarette smoking.There were 30 participants with diagnosed alcohol use disorders. 30 of them had never smoked, 28 were former smokers, and 75 were active smokers. There were also 39 never-smoking control subjects without alcohol use disorders who participated in the study.

MNT reports that participants who stopped drinking but continued to smoke, as well as participants who smoked in the past “were slower to recover some types of mental skills over a period of months as compared to those who never smoked.” The differences were most pronounced in areas such as “visual memory, attention, and the capacity to quickly perform motor tasks that require directed, focused mental activity.” The authors of the study suggest that cognitive recovery may be compromised by several mechanisms, and highlight the fact that, “The components of cigarette smoke can promote significant oxidative stress in the lungs, blood vessels, and brain in humans.

Some heartening news: Timorthy Durazzo, an author of the study, expressed surprise about the degree of recovery shown by the never-smokers in the study. These participants showed full recovery on all measures after 8 months of sustained abstinence from alcohol. They were no different from controls on any measure, even though the average alcohol consumption for the never-smoking ALC participants was about 370 drinks per month during the year prior to study. Durazzo said, “This suggests that significant cognitive recovery is possible during sustained abstinence from alcohol.”

It is common for smokers in early recovery from substance use disorders to be advised that giving up smoking is too stressful during the early going and may precipitate relapse. However, this study suggests that continuing to smoke may undermine some of the cognitive abilities, such as focused attention to recovery activities, that are required to address the challenges of this difficult period. As the authors of this study observe, their results “strongly reinforce the growing clinical movement to offer a comprehensive smoking-cessation program to individuals seeking treatment for alcohol and substance use disorders.”

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