May 08, 2016

The science behind smoking

By Dr. Belinda Chan, D.C.

CAMH provides great resources for smoking cessation strategies as well as a link to Dr. Mike Evans’ illustrated video of what does and doesn’t work when thinking about quitting smoking.

So what is this post about if not about ways you can quit smoking? I want to reveal to you the science behind smoking in hopes that this will help you understand why some can quit cold turkey while other’s can’t, understand why you feel the way you do during withdrawal, and the benefits you gain from quitting earlier. My hope is to empower you with knowledge so that you can take back control of your life.

Why is it so difficult to quit smoking?

In a healthy individual, a sympathetic response (aka. the “fight or flight” response) is initiated when neurotransmitters called acetylcholine bind to receptors (specifically, cholinergic receptors) in our body, often in response to a stressful situation. However, nicotine within cigarettes can initiate that same “fight or flight” response by binding to those receptors in the absence of acetylcholine. With constant stimulation of these receptors, nicotine will bind and in-activate them, thus causing your body to adapt by up-regulating the production of this receptor. This up-regulation means that over time, it will take more nicotine in order to fill all the receptors. If that doesn’t happen, cravings intensify because your body is tricked into thinking that it needs that constant sympathetic stimulation from nicotine, but isn’t getting it.

So, physiologically speaking, depending on how much up-regulation of the receptor has occurred, some will experience far more intense withdrawal symptoms than others. Some may find that using a patch and/or slowly decreasing the number of cigarettes per day is the best way to quit while controlling the symptoms of withdrawal.

Of course, if it was as simple as using a patch to control nicotine dosage Canada wouldn’t still be seeing a smoking prevalence of 14.5%.

We’ve already identified what happens to your body when you smoke. But what about your brain? Never mind the physical changes; what are the reasons we smoke? Your brain is a pretty amazing thing- with enough repetition, your brain can adapt to anything. For example, if every time you walked out of your office you had a cigarette, your body would start associating walking out of the office with needing a cigarette. By simply identifying when you have cravings to certain environments, objects, or people, it can help you manage your cravings.

And of course, motivation is key to quitting. You have to be ready for change. Here are a couple of facts to get you thinking about quitting if you are not already ready:

  • In just 8 hours after quit, excess carbon monoxide is out of your blood.
  • After just 1 week, your sense of taste and smell improves.
  • After 2-12 weeks, your circulation improves and your lung function increases.
  • 1 year after you quit, your risk of coronary heart disease is about half that of a smoker’s.
  • If you were a pack-a-day smoker, you’d save over $4,000 in 1 year.
  • After 5-15years, your stroke risk is reduced to that of a non-smoker.