It’s a commonly known fact that tobacco is responsible for the highest number of preventable deaths in the US.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that nearly 500,000 people in the US die prematurely annually due to smoking tobacco.
Tobacco is intensely addictive, so many people have a very hard time quitting smoking cigarettes or other tobacco/nicotine products.
Not only does cigarette smoke dramatically increase your chances of developing cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, and a wealth of other health conditions, it can have a negative effect on the way the brain functions.
But can the brain eventually recover after quitting smoking cigarettes?
In this article, we will explore exactly how smoking has an impact on the brain and how quitting will benefit not only your health overall, but your brain too.
What Effect Does Nicotine Have On The Brain?
Everyone knows and understands the effects of smoking on the lungs and heart, but not many people understand the effects that nicotine has on the brain.
According to Dr Lori A Russell-Chapin, PhD, nicotine is able to mimic various neurotransmitters as the compounds are a similar shape to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
This causes signalling to increase within the brain. Additionally, nicotine, when consumed, can activate dopamine signals, which releases a sensation of pleasure to the user.
After prolonged exposure to nicotine, the brain starts compensating for the heightened activity in the brain by lowering the levels of acetylcholine receptors.
This develops a tolerance to nicotine, so continued and increased use is required to provide the same effect to the user.
Additionally, nicotine has the ability to mimic dopamine, thus stimulating the pleasure centers inside the brain.
This makes the user associate the use of nicotine with a good, pleasurable feeling.
The National Institutes of Health claim that nicotine causes changes in the functions of the brain, which in turn leads to withdrawal symptoms when a user tries to quit the use of nicotine.
These symptoms can range from anxiety and irritability to intense cravings for nicotine or cigarettes.
The changes that occur within the brain as a result of prolonged nicotine use result in a strong dependence as the body becomes accustomed to having nicotine in its system.
The addictive nature of nicotine make it incredibly difficult for users to quit.
Apart from the more immediate effects of tobacco use relating to the heart and lungs, there are a wide array of effects that nicotine can have on the brain.
Below are some of these adverse effects of nicotine relating to the brain and its functions.
Decline In Cognitive Function
As a person ages, some cognitive decline is to be expected as it is a natural degradation of the brain’s functions. This usually manifests itself in forgetfulness, and slowness of thought.
Smokers, however, may experience a faster rate of cognitive decline compared to non-smokers. A 2012 study revealed that this effect may be more severe for male smokers, particularly those in middle age.
Heightened Risk Of Dementia
Research conducted in 2015 ha suggested that people who smoke cigarettes put themselves at a higher risk of developing dementia.
This condition can have a severe impact on a person’s memory, their cognitive abilities, judgment, language skills and behavior. It may even result in changes to the person’s personality.
This research concluded that smoking cigarettes increased the likelihood of developing dementia by 30%.
The research also found that once a smoker quits, their likelihood of developing dementia returns to the same likelihood of a person who doesn’t smoke.
Lower Brain Volume
A study that was conducted in 2017 revealed that smokers are at a higher risk of losing brain volume as they age.
This research suggests that long-term tobacco use can have a negative impact on the structural integrity of the subcortical regions of the brain.
In comparison to non-smokers, smokers have significantly more volume loss across several regions of the brain.
Increased Risk Of Stroke
There is well-documented evidence that smokers put themselves at a much higher risk of having a stroke.
A stroke occurs when a blood clot forms within the brain, which can be fatal or severely life altering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that smoking can increase the likelihood of suffering from a stroke by two or even four times.
They claim this is the case for both male and female smokers.
However, once a smoker quits smoking, this risk lowers to the same level as a non-smoker within 5 years.
Increased Risk Of Cancer
The numerous carcinogenic chemicals that are found in tobacco smoke can greatly increase the risk of developing cancer in the brain or elsewhere in the body.
Research by Dr Hashal Kirane of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research concluded that prolonged exposure to tobacco smoke along with changes in the genetics of the throat, lungs, and brain increases the likelihood of developing cancer.
Will Quitting Make A Difference?
Stopping smoking not only benefits people’s health by allowing the body to restore the proper function of the immune system, but it allows the brain to function normally once again.
A study conducted in 2018 discovered that smokers that quit permanently reduce their risk of developing dementia.
Another study published in 2015 concluded that stopping smoking can create positive changes to the structure of the brain’s cortex, although it may take years for these changes to manifest.
The Mayo Clinic has reported that once smokers quit for a prolonged period, the amount of nicotine receptors in the brain will eventually return to normal levels, and this in turn will reduce cravings for nicotine.
Along with these positive effects on brain health that quitting nicotine will bring, there are also a huge range of physical benefits for the body.
- The heart rate slows to a normal rate only 20 minutes after a smoker’s last cigarette
- The carbon monoxide levels in the blood will return to normal within 12 hours after a smoker’s last cigarette
- Lung function and the circulatory system will improve within 3 months of a smoker’s last cigarette
- The risk of having a heart attack drops by half within a year of a smoker’s last cigarette
- The risk of having a stroke drops to that of a person who doesn’t smoke within 5 to 15 years
How To Quit Tobacco
Quitting smoking can be intensely difficult because nicotine is an addictive substance.
Cigarettes can also be incredibly psychologically addictive, but many people successfully quit smoking permanently every day.
Here are some methods people use to help them quit
- Nicotine replacement therapy
- Counselling support
- Talking to a healthcare provider
- Relaxation techniques such as meditation
- Regular exercise, improved diet and other positive lifestyle habits will help you break the habit
There are many physical changes that occur to a smoker’s brain, along with the rest of their body and immune system.
Quitting cigarettes will, eventually, allow the brain and the body to return to a normal, healthy state. It takes time and dedication, but the brain can successfully recover from nicotine addiction.
With the right techniques, any smoker has the power to break their habit.