Good news for people who drink hard and exercise hard: Exercise might mitigate brain damage caused by heavy drinking.
People who exercised often did not show a "strong relationship between white matter damage and heavy drinking," unlike those who drank but did not exercise much, according to Hollis Karoly, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder and lead author of the study, which was published Tuesday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
White matter is one of the main components of the brain and is involved with learning, processing, cognition and communication between different regions of the brain. In the past, "heavy alcohol exposure [has been] significantly associated with decreased white matter fiber quality," according to the study. The study asked participants to self-report their drinking and aerobic exercise habits, which include running, walking, cycling and other light-to-moderate intensity activities.
Previous studies have also shown that people who exercise regularly have better white matter "integrity" than those who don't. Karoly says the "protective or reparative neurobiological effects" of exercise extend to those who drink heavily.
Because the study relied on self-reported drinking and exercise data, Karoly can't prescribe a certain type or amount of exercise in order to mitigate alcohol's brain-damaging effects. She says her findings are "preliminary" but are "consistent with the hypothesis that aerobic exercise may mitigate or reverse alcohol-related damage."
"Given that we did not have control over the duration, intensity, frequency or type of aerobic exercise in which participants engaged, it is difficult to address the 'dose' of aerobic exercise that may be necessary to obtain neuroprotective benefits," the study says.
Karoly says future research will seek to discover the mechanism by which exercise protects the brain. It is still unclear whether going for a run the day after a late night out can help mitigate alcohol's effects or whether the exercise must be a consistent lifestyle choice.
"We were only taking into account recent exercise and drinking behavior," she says. "It'd be interesting to look at longer-term exercise to control for how many years a person has been doing an exercise or drinking."