By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Cigarette smoking is one of the hardest habits to break, despite how crucial it is to do so. Here are some reality-based tips that can help you or a loved one quit.
Countless Reasons to Quit Smoking
You probably are well aware of the countless health-related reasons to quit smoking…Tobacco use (via cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, etc.) is the leading preventable cause of disability, disease and death in the U.S. Of the more than 4,000 chemicals found in tobacco and tobacco smoke, 60 are known to cause cancer; most of the rest of these chemicals cause free-radical damage to arteries. Smoking and breathing in secondhand smoke also intensify the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which can lead to clogged arteries and increase a your or a loved one’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Additionally, smoking increases your risk of developing chronic lung diseases. Pregnant women who smoke are more likely to miscarry or have children with low-birth weights. Heavier smoking can chronically increase sympathetic nervous system activity, which can lead to hormonal imbalance.
But people continue to smoke, despite knowing that – as Kurt Vonnegut put it – “smoking is the surest form of suicide.” A smoking habit can simply defy reason, as the smoker is blinded by addiction.
Why Is It So Hard to Quit Smoking?
Especially those who smoke 10+ cigarettes per day, quitting smoking may mean complete re-habituation… that is, learning a whole new set of daily routines. Not only is the nicotine in tobacco physiologically addictive, but the activity of smoking may be deeply ingrained in people’s lives. Smokers tend to associate smoking with daily transitions or processes like eating, drinking coffee or alcohol, working, socializing, taking a break or even simply being outside; the uncertainty of engaging in these habits without smoking may be disorienting and even scary.
Dr. Arthur Brody, a UCLA researcher who has studied the effects of nicotine on the brain says, “the many effects of smoking, including elevated mood and alleviation of anxiety, suggest that a long-term smoker may face considerable biochemical, cognitive, and emotional readjustments when he or she quits.” The thought of making such changes may too be overwhelming for smokers to make “today the day” to quit. The unfortunate reality for smokers, though, is that cigarettes can seriously endanger their health, as well as the health of others around them, including loved ones and pets, when they light up. That’s why we’ve listed tips below to help you or someone you love kick the deadly habit.
How You Can Prepare to Quit Smoking
I encourage all smokers to test themselves for 24 hours, even if to just to get a glimpse of the daily challenges that may lie ahead with quitting. Once you go one day without, try two, then three. Since nicotine takes about 48 to 72 hours to leave the circulatory system, getting over that three-day hump means you have accomplished half the battle. After that, there’s the emotional/mental addiction and re-habituation.
Mentally preparing for physical withdrawal symptoms can help increase your chances of getting through the day (or three+) without a cigarette. Nicotine withdrawal can cause symptoms of irritability, sleep disruption, attention difficulty, increased appetite, and intense tobacco cravings, which tend to peak at around 48 hours after your last cigarette. This is because nicotine, like cocaine, marijuana and heroin, increases levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that leads to a sense of pleasure and reward. Nicotine also creates effects of increased mental alertness and performance, and stimulates the release of hormones that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and inhibit pain. While most symptoms disappear within a few days, the hunger and tobacco cravings can persist for months. Quitting smoking is really difficult for many smokers; relapsing is common and sometimes it can take many attempts before cigarettes truly become a thing of the past.
Ways to Quit Smoking
For some people, using a nicotine replacement tool like the patch or gum to help wean off nicotine is what it takes, while others do it best “cold turkey” (though I discourage using e-cigarettes for a variety of reasons, as I discuss in Should You Quit Smoking with E-Cigs?).
The most important thing is to set your mind to quit and to do it, no matter what. If you don’t make it on the first try, keep trying… for your health and the health of those around you.
If you or someone you love wants to quit, I suggest the following: you or someone you know wants to quit, I suggest the following:
- Prepare ahead of time by slowly changing your lifestyle habits associated with smoking. Start delaying that first cigarette of the day as long as you can. It will make re-habituating that much easier after you quit.
- Look into nicotine replacement tools to see if they are right for you.
- If you are in a situation to, try quitting over the weekend or when you are not subject to regular daily demands which could trigger your urge to smoke.
- Get into exercise and mind-body routines that you will realistically continue after you quit; with its emphasis on breathing, yoga is a particularly good activity to get into to remain smoke-free.
- Remove all smoking supplies (ashtrays, lighters, cigarettes) from your house, car, workplace, etc. to reduce visual reminders that could trigger cravings.
- To prevent weight gain commonly associated with smoking cessation, stock your refrigerator with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies to munch on (e.g. carrot sticks, apple slices, sliced melon, grapes, celery sticks, etc.) when hunger or the need to put something in your mouth strikes.
- Quit with a friend or family member and agree to give each other social support if the cravings get strong.
- When the going gets rough, give yourself a time out to take 10 of the deepest breaths you can take (then continue to focus on breathing in and out, in and out, in and out…).
- Reward yourself: for every pack of cigarettes you would have smoked, put the money saved in a jar and treat yourself to something nice.
Resources for Smoking Cessation:
- American Cancer Society. “Guide to Quitting Smoking,” Cancer.org.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Smoking and Tobacco Use: How to Quit” Cdc.gov.
- The Mayo Clinic. “Quit Smoking Basics,” Mayoclinic.com.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Great American Smokeout — November 18, 2010,” Cdc.org, Nov. 12, 2010.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “Imaging Studies Elucidate Neurobiology of Cigarette Smoking.” Nida.nih.gov.
- NIDA. “InfoFacts: Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products,” Nida.nih.gov.
- American Cancer Society. “Cigarette Smoking,” Cancer.org.
- NIDA. “Facts About Nicotine and Tobacco Products.” Nida.nih.gov.
© Stephen Sinatra. All rights reserved.