Why quitting is hard
Nicotine is a poisonous drug which the tobacco plant produces to protect itself from being eaten.
Smoking is the fastest drug delivery system there is, even faster than injecting yourself. Nicotine gets to your brain within twenty seconds after a drag. Each drag gives you a high – nothing compared to cocaine or ecstasy etc., but significant enough for your brain to want more.
Nicotine is more addictive than heroin, although it is much less harmful to your health. And here’s why …
Nicotine actually ‘rewires’ your brain. It is similar to acetylcholine, a naturally produced neurotransmitter (these are like hormones but are only found in the brain) and it bonds onto the acetylcholine receptors in your brain. As you smoke, the acetylcholine receptors are stimulated beyond their natural level, so the brain actually builds more receptors to soak up the excess because it can’t tell the difference between nicotine and acetylcholine.
What this means is that when the level of nicotine in your system has subsided, your brain has many more acetylcholine receptors than a non-smoker. Each one of these receptors craves acetylcholine, like a baby crying to be fed. A smoker experiences this as a craving for cigarettes because the subconscious works out that silencing those crying babies can be done most easily and effectively by having another cigarette.
It only takes about 30 minutes after your last cigarette for the level of nicotine in your system to drop to a level where you would begin experiencing symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.
Just like other addictive drugs, nicotine also activates the dopamine reward pathway in the brain. Dopamine is another neurotransmitter which creates a feeling of pleasure. When you first smoke, the dopamine released creates the feeling of pleasure; however as you continue to smoke, the brain gets used to that level of dopamine and makes you smoke more to increase the level of dopamine. So the change is from “Mmmm that was good, do it again” to “Just do it again”.
Heroin also activates that dopamine reward pathway. So do cocaine, alcohol and cannabis. However these last three don’t rewire your brain like nicotine and heroin and this is why addiction to them can’t be managed by using withdrawal management techniques.
Finally, smoking is a self-reinforcing behaviour. A 20 a day smoker gets about 200 highs a day and begins to associate these highs with the day’s activities (e.g. the fag after sex or a meal, the first fag of the day, the fag with a coffee or a drink, smoking while on the phone etc). This is where ‘addiction’ (physical) meets ‘habit’ (psychological) and this is why it can be so hard to stop smoking.