It’s getting to that time of year again when we start thinking about what we would like to achieve in the new year. These thoughts often take the form of resolutions which may be quickly broken or maintained depending on the resolution makers conviction and staying power!
I like to encourage my clients to think of the one habit that they could add or take away from their life that would make the biggest difference to their future health. Often one of the habits they would love to take away is smoking.
As someone who has stopped smoking in the past (insanity in my late teens led to a 20 a day habit) I understand how difficult it is to quit. The initial cravings are woeful followed by a lengthy period of longing every time a person lights up a cigarette. However, the cravings eventually pass and the health benefits of quitting include:
- Your blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature elevated by nicotine drop to healthier levels.
- Your breathing becomes much easier as poisonous carbon monoxide in your blood drops and it can carry more oxygen. This makes it much easier to exercise, and you are much less likely to feel fatigued.
- Your immune system becomes much more equipped to fight off colds and flus as it is no longer being overtaxed by the damage you are doing to your lungs.
- Lower stress levels, which can be caused by nicotine withdrawal between cigarettes. You might feel that cigarettes help you handle stress but the nicotine is actually making it worse in the first place.
- Blood flow improves to the sex organs leading to easier erections for men and more intense orgasms for women. Also, research shows that people are more attracted to non-smokers than smokers.
- Fertility is improved. Smoking has a detrimental effect on the lining of the womb and on the quality of men’s sperm.
- Your sense of smell and taste will improve when you get rid of the 100’s of toxic chemicals ingested in cigarette smoke.
- It will reduce the likelihood of wrinkling at a faster rate than normal due to increased oxygen supply to the skin and reduced toxic load on the entire body.
- You can add decades to your life and avoid debilitating diseases such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer.
- You will be protecting your family from the detrimental effects of passive smoking.
- You will have more money!
We all know the detrimental health effects of a smoking habit, but as a rule, relapses are the rule when smokers try to quit. So why is nicotine so addictive and why is it so difficult to give up? Nicotine stimulates nicotine acetylcholine receptors in the central nervous system, which increases the release of several neurotransmitters such as dopamine, glutamate, serotonin and GABA, and that is why you get that lovely feel good sensation when you light up a cigarette. However, your brain quickly adapts to nicotine and craves more and more to get you back to how you felt after just one cigarette. Also your brain learns to predict when you are going to smoke so it can increase cravings around that particular time or events. Everyones triggers are different but can include:
- the smell of cigarette smoke
- having an ashtray next to you.
- seeing a pack of cigarettes at a store.
- consuming certain foods and drinks.
- ending a good meal.
- talking with someone who normally smokes cigarettes.
- feeling happy or sad.
Its important to recognise these triggers so you can avoid them when you’re trying to quit. I also think it’s important to understand that a craving is just a chemical process occurring in your body and doesn’t define who you are – you can beat chemistry!!
Most people try to quit cold turkey with no outside help, but they have been found to be 4 times more likely to relapse than those who seek help. Traditionally, treatment strategies have focused on targeting the nACh receptors through nicotine replacement therapy and/or varenicline or blocking the reuptake of dopamine and noradrenaline (bupropion). However, these treatments are only moderately successful in smoking cessation, relapse is the rule rather than the exception and the drugs themselves may have adverse side effects. I remember working with a lady who wore multiple nicotine patches and smoked 20 per day in a failed bid to give up – she was so high on nicotine she could barely function!
In recent years, focus has shifted from the nicotine receptors to the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is released in increasing amounts in response to the nicotine inhaled through cigarette smoke, and has been shown to be a major factor in nicotine dependence. It therefore makes sense that factors that reduce the amount of glutamate released could reduce nicotine cravings and prevent relapse.
This is where N-acetyl cysteine comes into play. N-acetyl cysteine or NAC comes from amino acids and is a building block of glutathione, the most important antioxidant in the body, and a very important factor in reducing oxidative stress and encouraging detoxification. Supplementation of NAC has been found to increase levels of glutathione in cells. It has also been found to affect glutamate release to the extent that it modulates craving and reward behaviours. Studies have found that supplementing with 3 grams of NAC daily reduces number of cigarettes smoked in current smokers, significantly reduces cravings in those trying to stop and increases the number of people who are able to stop smoking completely. Also, due to it’s ability to increase the production of the antioxidant, glutathione, it can help repair the oxidative damage done to lungs though tobacco smoke exposure. Promising research has also shown that NAC can also aid in quitting other addictive behaviours such as cocaine, gambling and hair pulling. This type of treatment makes more sense to me as you are managing your cravings whilst ridding your body of the addictive substance of nicotine rather supplementing with another form i.e. gums and patches.
There is no easy path to quitting especially if you have a long-term habit. You need a firm conviction to stop before seeking treatment. When a smoker comes to see me for smoking cessation I would recommend counselling to help recognise triggers and have mechanisms in place to avoid or bypass them. I usually suggest a brisk walk if the cravings hit – helps get rid of the craving and you get fitter in the process! But I would also recommend N-acetyl cysteine as part of a smoking cessation protocol, especially in the first few days to weeks of the nicotine withdrawal period. Ask your nutritionist or naturopath for natural ways to quit.
I wish you all the best of luck for 2017 and if you are a smoker, I wish you all of the strength, willpower and help you can get to beat your habit.