Smoking Changes Your Brain

January 2, 2023

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Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States. There are several risk factors for cardiovascular disease. This can include things you can’t change, such as sex, age, and genetics. They can also include things you can change. The WHO identifies four big behaviors that can change your risk of developing CVD:

  • Poor diet
  • Low exercise
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Smoking

These behaviors generally lead to other undesirable indicators of health, including obesity, hypertension, high blood sugar, and increased cholesterol. Clearly, ceasing the behavioral risks is a high priority. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done.

One of the most difficult habits to quit is smoking. Studies show that those attempting to quit without assistance have an over 90% relapse rate. Several medications exist to help quit smoking, including Bupropion SR (aka Wellbutrin) and Varenicline (aka Chantix). There are also nicotine-based alternatives, including gum, inhalers, lozenges, nasal sprays, and patches.  Nicotine rewires the brain as it’s consumed. It releases dopamine, the brain’s reward drug, and rewards us for smoking. Researchers think the frequency of smoking may be partially to blame for the intensity of the addiction. The amount of dopamine released is not particularly high compared with other drugs, but nicotine also causes changes to the striatum. The striatum is part of the reward circuit in the brain. Through a complicated mechanism, nicotine increases the amount of a protein called FosB, which changes the striatum’s sensitivity to dopamine. This is a change at the genetic level which makes the brain more susceptible to further reward signals. Nicotine seems to make normal activities more pleasurable. Unfortunately, as nicotine adjusts the brain’s mechanisms, the brain relies on it to get to a baseline of reward. Upon quitting smoking, the brain finds normal activities less enjoyable.

On its own, nicotine may have negative effects, and in heavy doses it has been shown to be dangerous. The biggest dangers of smoking, however, are likely in the myriad of other chemicals in tobacco and cigarettes. Though nicotine causes changes in the brain, cigarettes cause changes to the fats in your body, further increasing CVD risk. Along with this, cigarettes cause cancer, COPD, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, and immune system changes. Clearly, quitting smoking is critical to health. With the addictive nature of nicotine and the low success rate of quitting cold turkey, assistance may be needed. 

The brain gets addicted to nicotine, but we can fight back using behavior. You can actually help yourself “break the cycle” of nicotine addiction by changing your daily routines. For example if the first thing you do in the morning is reach for a cigarette, change your routine to going to the bathroom and brushing your teeth first instead. Behavioral interventions can make a significant difference. Combining behavior changes and counseling with a nicotine replacement or medication can help quit rates approach 30%. Indeed, nicotine replacements are most effective when used with behavioral interventions. 

Changing your behavior or routine can have positive impacts on your health. So next time you want to reach for a cigarette, grab your phone instead! Give us a call and discover what clinical trials you can take part in!


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Koren, M. (Host). (2022, May 22). Nicotine replacement therapies to help stop smoking  [Audio podcast episode]. In Medevidence! Truth behind the data. ENCORE Research Group.

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NIDA. (2018, September 28). Recent Research Sheds New Light on Why Nicotine is So Addictive.

US Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). The health consequences of smoking—50 years of progress: a report of the Surgeon General.

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