The bad news is a vast majority of people who have alcohol-use disorders are also chronic smokers and most recovering alcoholics are smokers.
Chronic smoking is very common among alcoholics. Some estimates put the number of smokers among recovering alcoholics at more than 90 percent. Some brain damage, particularly in the frontal and parietal cortices, is also common among alcoholics.
Reversing Brain Damage
Once you stop drinking, however, any damage your brain may have suffered can begin to reverse itself. The rate at which the brain recovers depends on many factors, including diet, age, exercise and your genetic makeup.
Now researchers at the University of California, San Francisco believe that smoking tobacco can also affect how quickly brains recover from years of alcohol abuse.
Anderson Mon and associates used magnetic resonance imaging to study the flow of blood through the brain, a key factor in the brain recovering from long-term heavy drinking. They studied a group of non-smoking alcoholics, a group of smoking alcoholics and a control group of non-smoking light drinkers.
Smokers Showed Little Recovery
"At one week of abstinence, both smoking and non-smoking alcohol-dependent patients had similar frontal and parietal gray matter perfusion; and both groups had lower perfusion than normal controls," said Mon. "However, after five weeks of abstinence, frontal and parietal gray matter perfusion of the non-smoking alcohol-dependent patients recovered to normal control levels, whereas the smoking group essentially showed no recovery."
The researchers stopped short of recommending that people trying to quit drinking also be encouraged to stop smoking at the same time. This is because previous research has shown that alcoholics who were forced to quit both at the same time did not stay sober as long as those who chose to quit both.
Quitting Should Be an Option
Quitting both should be an option for the patient, not a mandate from treatment provider, the authors said.
"...if a patient wishes to tackle both smoking and drinking at the same time, it will be worth the attempt to that person, helping them recover more complete brain function and stay sober, in addition to other, better known health benefits of smoking cessation," Mon said in a news release.
The bottom line, the researchers said, is that prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption is bad for your brain, but a combination of heavy drinking with smoking is even worse.