How to overcome nicotine's physiological power

It's the number-one cause of preventable death in the U.S., and yet, 55 million people over the age of 11 in this country continue to smoke. Of those smokers, more than 35 million express a desire to quit each year, but only about 15 percent succeed. That struggle points to the highly addictive power of nicotine, which alters brain chemistry within 10 seconds of inhaling the first cigarette, creating an enhanced mood that wears off within a few hours, prompting even the first-time smoker to want another and another. For those who've managed to quit and are feeling confident enough that they can have "just one," the brain's dormant nicotine receptors are awakened in full force, which for many leads to a relapse, and before they know it, they are back to the level of smoking prior to quitting.

The lessons in all of this, of course, are (a) don't start smoking in the first place; it's one of the most quickly addictive substances on the planet, and (b) if you're a former smoker, don't kid yourself into thinking that just one cigarette won't hurt; it could easily get you started all over again.

But here's another powerful truth: quitting smoking is absolutely doable, even for the most hard-core smoker, once you acknowledge your life depends on it. Whether you're ready to call it quits for the first time or you've fallen back into the habit, there are many proven methods and resources that will help you quit once and for all.

As grim as the physiological realities of nicotine addiction are, the physical benefits of quitting are faster and more dramatic than many people may realize. This timeline tells a compelling story:

- 20 minutes after quitting, your heart rate begins to drop.

- 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal.

- 2 weeks to three months after quitting, your heart attack risk begins to drop and your lung function improves.

- 1 to 9 months after quitting, coughing and shortness of breath decrease.

- 1 year after quitting, your added risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker's.

- 5 years after quitting, your stroke risk is the same level of a non-smoker.

- 10 years after quitting, your lung cancer death risk is half that of a smoker's.

- 15 years after quitting, your risk of heart disease is the same as if you never smoked.

Even if you look at it in purely economic terms, the benefits of quitting are huge. Stopping a one-pack-a-day habit (at an average cost of $10 a pack) can save you $300 a month and $3,650 a year. That would easily cover a fitness program, with plenty left over for a trip, some family fun or simply paying your bills on time.

Once you've made the very personal decision to quit, here are few suggestions for how to successfully follow through:

- Plan a quit date and stick to it. Some people succeed on the impulse to stop cold turkey now, but many find it better to set a specific date.

- Talk to your primary care provider. Your doctor should be a key source of support, including prescribing nicotine replacement patches and other smoking cessation aids.

- Clean your house and car of all signs of smoking. Lighters, matches, empty packs and ash trays are triggers that should be purged from sight.

- Get moral support from family and friends. Knowing what you're trying to do, they'll be there to encourage you.

- Be prepared for withdrawal symptoms. Knowing the physiological realities (irritability, cravings, depression, sleep troubles, heightened appetite, etc.,) will help you better cope with them.

The Massachusetts Smokers Helpline, 1-800-QUIT-NOW is an excellent coaching and confidential referral resource.

Doreen Donovan, R.N., is a clinical wellness nurse with Berkshire Health Systems.


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