According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Most people know that smoking increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and lung disease, but what many people don’t understand how much smoking impacts your brain. Read on to take a closer look at how nicotine affects your brain and how you can use nicotine therapy to quit smoking and protect your brain for good.
What does smoking do to your brain?
According to Lori A. Russell-Chapin, Ph.D., professor at Bradley University’s Online Masters of Counseling Program, in an interview for Healthline, “Nicotine mimics several neurotransmitters, which send signals in the brain. Since nicotine is similar in shape to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, signaling increases in the brain.”
As you continue to introduce nicotine to your brain and the excessive signaling continues, your brain cuts down on its own acetylcholine transmitters. This means that the more nicotine you use, the more your brain will crave.
Nicotine also mimics dopamine and activates the dopamine signals in your brain, causing a sensation of pleasure and happiness. Over time, you begin to associate nicotine (and the act of smoking) with these feelings of joy and, in turn, begin to crave cigarettes.
As your brain starts to crave the signaling created by nicotine, an addiction develops. You start to reach for more and more cigarettes to meet the new needs of your brain. This cycle takes a while to notice, but once it hits, it is tough to break.
Once your brain is caught in nicotine addiction, the negative impacts of nicotine on the brain really begin to grow.
Cognitive decline happens naturally as we age. Older people generally have trouble remembering things and maybe a bit scatterbrained. Studies have shown, however, that smokers, especially middle-aged men, may experience heightened cognitive decline sooner and more quickly than non-smokers.
Smoking can also lead to an increased risk of dementia. Dementia can impact memory, decision-making abilities, language skills, even personality, and behavior. Studies show that smokers may be as much as 30% more likely to develop dementia.
Smoking also increases risk of stroke, a blood clot, or excessive bleeding in the brain. Strokes can be debilitating and even deadly. CDC research shows that smokers may be up to 4 times more likely to suffer from a stroke than non-smokers. The good news is that research suggests that quitting smoking can significantly decrease your raised risk within 5 years.
How can you break the addiction?
Now that you know a bit about what nicotine does to your brain, you may be asking yourself how you can kick your addiction for good. Nicotine addiction is very serious, and the impacts and withdraws can be difficult to manage. The good news is that doctors have developed replacement therapy to help your body slowly wean off of nicotine and make the symptoms of withdrawing more manageable.
Nicotine replacement therapy gives your body and brain a small amount of nicotine to help ease withdrawing while protecting your body from the other harmful effects of smoking. It is commonly recommended by doctors and is a safe and effective way to quit smoking for good.
There are a variety of nicotine replacement options available. While a few are available over the counter, many require a doctor’s prescription. It’s a good idea to seek professional support from a doctor and/or licensed counselor as you work to quit smoking. You can even start with support from an app such as Lifehelp. The professionals can walk you through the steps, help you chose the best therapy, and make a plan precisely to fit your needs.
Nicotine therapy is available in many forms, and a counselor can help you choose the right kind. Gum and skin patches are two of the most common ways. You can also use nasal sprays, inhalers, and lozenges.
Is nicotine replacement therapy right for you?
Nicotine replacement therapy is not for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling to quit smoking due to nicotine addiction or dependence, nicotine therapy may help. If any of these describe your situation, you may want to ask a medical professional if nicotine therapy is something you should consider.
- You smoke a pack of cigarettes or more each day.
- You wake in the night to smoke a cigarette.
- You smoke within a few minutes of waking up each morning.
- You smoke even when you’re not feeling well.
Since nicotine therapy is designed for heavy nicotine users, it is unclear if it will help people smoking 10 or fewer cigarettes each day. If you’re unsure if nicotine therapy can help you, it’s best to consult a medical professional.
Nicotine therapy is not for you if you are pregnant or you’re in your teens. You should also avoid nicotine replacement therapy if you are still smoking or using other tobacco products.
Does nicotine replacement therapy work?
Yes! Nicotine replacement therapy has been shown to help break nicotine addictions and is often recommended by doctors to help their patients quit smoking. To give yourself the best chance of successfully quitting, experts recommend seeking support. You can get support and accountability from friends and family, mental health counselors on online services such as Lifehelp App and from medical doctors. Quitting smoking can be hard, but it’s worth it, and many people are ready to help you.