Each year, nearly 450,000 Americans die from smoking related illnesses. That's more than all deaths from HIV/AIDS, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders combined. So why do smokers continue to light up when statistics like these make it clear that they should quit? Nicotine addiction is powerful, which makes quitting difficult--but it is possible. There are now 45 million smokers, but 47 million successful quitters. By understanding nicotine addiction and withdrawal, you can be better prepared to crush out this destructive habit for good.
Understanding the Addiction
When you smoke, nicotine speeds to receptors that trigger the release of dopamine, your body's feel-good chemical. Nicotine causes dopamine to be released in several parts of the brain: the mesolimbic pathway, the corpus striatum, the nucleus accumbens and the frontal cortex (highlighted above). Over time, the receptors where nicotine can connect become desensitized. This means that they lose some of their ability to send signals that result in the release of dopamine, and other neurotransmitters. As a result, more nicotine receptor sites are created. The overall effect is that smokers who have developed additional receptors need more nicotine to avoid having withdrawal symptoms.
The longer you smoke, and the more you smoke each day, the more severe nicotine addiction becomes. The craving for nicotine intensifies and becomes more frequent. Ignoring the cravings brings on unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. And what alleviates those? Yes, more nicotine.
The Rewards of Nicotine
Let's face it: If there were no positive outcomes to smoking, no one would ever do it. "There are many motivations to smoke," says Michael D. Stein, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Community Health at Brown University and author of The Lonely Patient and The Addict. "The dominant one is physical dependence--that is, smokers who try to stop have withdrawal symptoms, and cigarettes relieve the symptoms. But nicotine can also improve attention and vigilance. Smokers smoke when they need to concentrate or focus. Smoking helps some people feel in a better mood, or they feel a high, a buzz. Some smokers enjoy the taste and smell of a cigarette. Finally, smoking serves as an appetite suppressant. People smoke to control their weight." While all medical experts agree that the health risks are not worth these beneficial aspects, many smokers have a real fear of losing the sense of control and other pleasurable sensations when they stop. So, how can quitters learn to conduct their daily routine smoke-free? Understanding what to expect and planning for withdrawal symptoms is a great place to start.
Managing Nicotine Withdrawal
The physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are rough stuff. The brain and body still crave nicotine's positive effects, so its absence causes quite an uproar. Quitters can experience any combination of irritability, anxiety, depression, sweating, headaches, insomnia, confusion, cramps and weight gain. Understanding what feelings and symptoms accompany nicotine withdrawal is important, because there are steps you can take to manage your symptoms.
Most of the nicotine withdrawal symptoms are short-lived, and symptoms pass in time, usually in less than a week. Withdrawal is the most uncomfortable part of quitting, but getting past this rough patch is the first real challenge in staying away from tobacco for good!
Learn more about coping with nicotine withdrawal symptoms: