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March 9, 2015
Researchers at Yale University have found that smoking might be hampering treatment for alcohol abuse. Their research paper (“Tobacco smoking interferes with GABA receptor neuroadaptations during prolonged alcohol withdrawal”) indicates that, contrary to popular belief, continuing to smoke while abstaining from drinking does not make the process of withdrawal from alcohol any easier to manage – and in fact may be making recovery from alcohol addiction far more difficult than it already is.
An airbag for the nervous system
As part of the study, the brains of the research subjects – made up of a mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic volunteers – were scanned to measure the levels of GABA (A). The GABA receptors in the brain control our responses to stressful situations. They can be thought of as acting like a kind of airbag for the nervous system: in situations of stress they slow down brain activity and reduce anxiety, just like the actual airbag in a car, which cushions the force of impact in the event of a crash.
In chemical dependents and alcoholics this cushioning effect is already not functioning at full capacity, and smoking, while no doubt providing an illusion of relaxation to many, could in fact be aggravating the problem.
The results indicated a link between the levels of GABA(A) in the brains of those who continued to smoke while abstaining from alcohol. Levels of alcohol craving among those who continued to smoke during abstinence were also found to be as much as twice as high as among the non-smokers.
Cigarettes, the recovering alcoholic’s best friend?
For some alcoholics in recovery, however, smoking can be one way to ease their withdrawal from drinking, and it is well known that many alcoholics do indeed smoke. Indeed, a cigarette can be someone’s best friend, especially when that person is struggling with alcohol withdrawal.
But, as discussed above, this new research from Yale University shows that this so-called best friend could in fact be acting as an obstacle to recovery from alcoholism. In an ideal world, therefore, recovering alcoholics would do well to give up smoking, too.
The hard reality of withdrawal
That said, curbing two addictions at the same time is something many alcoholics would say is impossible. So while the lessons of this research are quite clear, in the chaotic world of alcoholism it may be a tall order indeed for someone to kick a nicotine habit while also trying to quit drinking, particularly in the early days of recovery.