As we get closer to the end of the year, many of us will be thinking about resolutions. Personal goals regarding our health and wellness are by far the most common. And sure to be on the top of many New Year’s resolution lists will be quitting smoking.
It’s a good promise to make to yourself and your family. But it’s not easy.
Putting down your cigarettes for good means you’ll need a lot of determination and – depending how much you smoke – an understanding that you’re going to feel like garbage for at least a couple of weeks as you go through nicotine withdrawals.
If you’re going to quit smoking, you could use all the help you can get.
First, let’s take a look at what’s going on inside your body, and perhaps more importantly, in your mind.
Understanding the Science of Nicotine Addiction
Make no mistake about it…nicotine is a powerful drug. According to TheFix.com, 50 million Americans are hooked on smoking, and one in five deaths in the U.S. can be connected to the effects of smoking tobacco.
That’s despite anti-smoking campaigns, laws that have banned cigarette smoking indoors around much of the country, restrictions on tobacco advertising and cigarette taxes in many states that are meant to discourage smokers from continuing with their habit.
Despite our best efforts – many of us are still hooked.
Perhaps part of the reason is Big Tobacco really doesn’t want you to quit. In fact, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health conducted research released in 2006, which found that the nicotine content in cigarettes had risen steadily since 1998. A separate Harvard study in 2007 confirmed the findings.
That’s a pretty deceptive move – especially when you consider the fact that many consider nicotine to be the third most addictive drug – behind only heroin and crack cocaine.
Here’s how and why nicotine addiction happens…
The Psychology of Smoking
One of the biggest reasons we get addicted to smoking is that it activates the rewards center of our brains – specifically, the part of the brain known as the limbic system. That’s considered the “primitive” part of your brain – like a caveman mind. The limbic system deals with emotion and survival – feelings such as fear, anger and sexual arousal. It is irrational and only concerned with avoiding pain and achieving pleasure.
It’s believed the limbic system helped our ancestors survive because it rewarded them for behavior that kept them alive.
But in our modern world, we’ve become overstimulated with rewards. That includes the buzz we get from smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol as well as little things like eating sugar or junk food, going on social media, gambling, playing video games, checking our smartphones etc. They all activate the pleasure/rewards part of our brains and make us feel good.
Some say we might be getting “addicted” to things like that because – besides making us feel good – these reactions become hardwired in our brains so our minds and bodies are tricked into thinking we need them for survival.
That’s why smokers feel like they have to have a cigarette when they are stressed out. The limbic system knows that nicotine will quell the feelings of fear, anxiety or anger and calm the person down – essentially telling the mind that there is no more “danger.”
Nicotine literally changes the way the brain functions.
The Chemistry of Nicotine’s Effect on Your Brain
When the rewards center of your brain is activated – the neurotransmitter known as dopamine is produced. Dopamine is the main culprit – but that’s really oversimplifying the process.
Nicotine seems to have very similar shape and activity to acetylcholine, which occurs naturally in your body. Acetylcholine is a so-called excitatory neurotransmitter that encourages production of other neurotransmitters. Nicotine mimics its actions.
When you first ingest nicotine, the adrenal glands are stimulated and the neurotransmitter epinephrine (or adrenaline) is released. This causes your heart-rate and blood pressure. It also promotes production of dopamine.
Nicotine attaches to core neurons in your limbic system. Those neurons then flood your brain with dopamine – the root-cause of the pleasurable feeling you get from smoking. On top of that, dopamine tells your primitive brain tor remember the nice feeling so it wants it again and again, which eventually leads to dependence and then addiction.
Researchers have found that nicotine effects other neurotransmitters as well – including glutamate and GABA.
Glutamate speeds up the neurons in your mind and enhances the connections between neurons. It is involved with memory and learning. This might be why some people feel the need to smoke cigarettes when they have to focus. Experts also think glutamate could create a “memory loop” of the pleasurable response in your brain, which further reinforces the addiction.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating the release of dopamine in your brain. It’s believed that GABA can reduce excitability in the nervous system. However, nicotine seems to impact GABA’s ability to inhibit dopamine release. This could cause the effects of a nicotine buzz to last longer.
Nicotine also appears to increase the amount of endorphins your brain makes. Endorphins are often called the body’s “natural painkillers” and can produce a euphoric feeling – somewhat similar to morphine. That’s yet another way nicotine has a rewarding (and potentially addicting) effect.
What Happens When You Stop Smoking
There’s obviously a lot that goes on when nicotine enters your body. So it’s no surprise that nicotine withdrawal can cause a host of unpleasant side effects – physical, mental and emotional.
According to the Mayo Clinic, nicotine withdrawal may lead to:
- Strong Cravings
- Increased Appetite
- Sleep Issues Including Insomnia
- Mood Issues Including Irritability and Anxiety
- Digestive Disturbances
- Memory and Focus Problems
Remember, nicotine literally changes the way your brain works. That means when you’re no longer putting nicotine in your system, you’ll be missing something your mind and body has come to rely on to function in day-to-day life.
It’s going to take time to retrain your brain. It won’t be pretty. But you may be able to get some all-natural help.
8 Natural Health Products That Might Make Quitting Easier
In a general sense, addictions work the same way – whether it is alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or cocaine. It is likely the case that certain nutrients can help you deal with recovery and withdrawal symptoms.
That’s especially true if those nutrients can help restore your natural balance of brain chemistry.
When you quit smoking, it would be very wise to start focusing on eating a healthy diet and getting into a regular exercise routine. Both these things could help you combat withdrawal symptoms while promoting recovery from the damage cigarettes likely caused in your body.
In addition, certain supplements could give you more of the brain-balancing nutrients than you can get from diet alone. Here are some that could help you deal with the symptoms that come when you stop smoking.
Graeme Mason, PhD, from the Yale School of Medicine conducted research which found that increasing GABA may decrease the pleasurable effects a smoker gets from nicotine.
GABA may also help to promote a sense of calm and focus – two things that a new ex-smoker would no doubt appreciate.
Nicotine is a stimulant. It causes your neurons to start firing at an abnormal rate. GABA seems to help normalize activity in your brain – particularly when it comes to over-activity.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that GABA is only one piece of the puzzle that is nicotine addiction. As Graeme Mason explains…
“While GABA is probably not the root of nicotine addiction, it is part of a complex network of actors that are involved in addiction.”
It seems that L-Tryptophan may be a good choice for those who want to quit smoking. You’ve probably heard about how tryptophan can make you feel sleepy. It’s often associated with turkey – although there really isn’t much of it in the meat.
This is an amino acid your body doesn’t produce. So you need to get it through diet or supplementation.
An L-tryptophan supplement could help you handle some common symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. It may help you relax, maintain a positive mood and get a good night’s sleep. There’s also evidence it could reduce carbohydrate cravings – which is another side effect of quitting smoking.
You may crave snacks, and at the same time, your metabolism slows down when you stop smoking. That’s why it’s not uncommon to gain weight when you quit – and another good reason to eat healthy and exercise.
5-HTP is actually a chemical byproduct of L-tryptophan – meaning it is produced when your body breaks down tryptophan. Many of its potential effects are similar. There are also laboratory studies on 5-HTP indicating it may help relieve withdrawal symptoms.
5-HTP appears to increase production of the neurotransmitter serotonin and could have an impact on your mood as well as appetite and sleep patterns. You may have heard serotonin referred to as “the happy hormone.”
Studies show serotonin is yet another neurotransmitter that increases with nicotine use. Some symptoms of nicotine withdrawal may stem from the fact that you have less serotonin in your system than you’re used to, which could be what leads to mood issues.
Another reason you may want to choose a 5-HTP supplement is that studies suggest uptake of L-tryptophan can be reduced by nicotine. So if you are weening yourself off cigarettes, using nicotine patches or gum, L-tryptophan may be less beneficial. However, 5-HTP may be able to increases serotonin levels independent of the rate of tryptophan uptake.
On one hand, scientific studies indicate it does not significantly contribute to smoking cessation programs.
However, plenty of herbalists have been using this plant for many years to help smokers. It is true that a specific chemical found in lobelia has similar activity in the body as nicotine. In fact, one of its nicknames is “Indian Tobacco.”
An herbalist and naturopath referenced on NaturalNews.com suggests taking a lobelia supplement when the urge to smoke a cigarette feels too strong to ignore. But be careful, there are side effects from taking too much lobelia – including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. That’s why another one of its nicknames is “Puke Weed.”
Even if lobelia can not help you quit smoking, it may help your body repair and recover. It is commonly used for respiratory issues and could help you breathe better.
While it differs from person to person, most smokers have elevated levels of cortisol in their systems. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and is produced in your adrenal glands. AdrenaCalm is formulated to potentially balance cortisol levels with beneficial vitamins and herbs.
Since it is a topical cream, it is absorbed through your skin directly into your bloodstream. This means it may start helping you calm down sooner than if you’d had to digest the nutrients.
6. Multivitamin & Antioxidant Supplements
As mentioned earlier, proper nutrition should be an important part of your journey to becoming smoke free.
It will be easier to deal with the symptoms if you are healthy. Plus, as a former smoker, it’s quite likely that you have some nutrient deficiencies that need to be addressed.
According to NYU Langone Medical Center, cigarette smokers may lack sufficient levels of the following:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids
*It should be noted that a large double-blind study indicated that heavy smokers who supplement with beta-carotene could increase their risk of lung cancer. For this reason, you may want to avoid such supplements until after you’ve successfully quit smoking, or look for a multivitamin with a lower dosage of beta-carotene/Vitamin A.
Another important part of fighting the damage cigarettes can cause is the power of antioxidants. Smoking can cause oxidative damage from free radicals, but antioxidants derived from natural sources may have the potential to reduce that damage.
Super Antioxidants from NOW Foods is a formula made up of plant-based nutrients from fruit and herbs. It could boost your immune system and improve your overall health.
7. A Good Detox Program
Plus, you’ve probably heard about all the other nasty stuff in cigarettes, which does your body no good at all.
You may have also heard ex-smokers tell you quitting gets easier after about a week – when all the chemicals are eliminated from your body.
Drinking lots of water is important as it helps your body flush out the toxins when you go to the bathroom. Exercising may help too – because you’ll be sweating out the toxins.
More on Herbal Therapies for Ex-Smokers
Certain herbs, such as rosemary, ginger root, honeysuckle and ginkgo biloba, may help nourish your lungs and improve oxygen flow – both of which can benefit an ex-smoker’s health.
Natural Healthy Concepts also offers some products that are specifically designed for people trying to quit smoking. That includes those which contain 5-HTP, as well as Nicotine Relief Supreme, a tincture from Gaia Herbs.
There are likely many other herbal support products and mood health supplements available in our online store that may help you as you try to kick the habit.
However – as always – it is very important to talk to a trusted healthcare professional about the supplements you plan to take. In fact, it’s a good idea to let that person know about your plans to stop smoking in general.
Some Final Thoughts on Kicking the Habit
Here’s one more hard truth for you…
If you don’t want to quit smoking, it doesn’t matter what supplements you take, you’ll probably go back to your cigarettes.
Need motivation? Consider making a list of all the benefits that quitting could bring to your life. Write out all the reasons why it is a good idea. If you don’t do it for yourself – think of the other people in your life who need you to be around and in good health.
Consider keeping a calendar and marking off days that you’ve gone without smoking. You may find it easier to resist when you know having a smoke will ruin your streak.
Since cigarettes are a reward that ignites your brain’s pleasure center – you may find yourself replacing the reward you got from nicotine with something else. That is okay. As long as you do not replace it with something else unhealthy.
Don’t eat junk food whenever you crave a cigarette. Don’t start a habit of drinking too much caffeine. Don’t crack open a beer whenever you feel an urge to smoke.
Try to find healthy ways to reward yourself.
But remember to keep your eyes on the prize. The real reward is better health and a longer, happier, smoke-free life.
Let’s Hear From You!
Do you have some tips for people who are trying to stop smoking?
Have some stories from your own struggle to quit?
Is there a certain method or product that helped you out?
Please, share your thoughts with everyone in the comments below.
- Featured Image Credit – Ryan Dwyer via Flickr Creative Commons
- Sad Woman Smoking Credit – Ben Raynal via Flickr Creative Commons
- Mushroom Brain Illustration – koji kusanagi via Flick Creative Commons
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