Why do people smoke? The answer is very simple: people smoke because when they do it they feel good. Smokers enjoy their habit because it stimulates the flow of "feel good" chemicals in the brain, according to a new study involving just a handful of test subjects.
The system of the brain affected is the same one that is stimulated by heroin and morphine.
According to the study smoking affects the brain's natural system of chemicals called endogenous opioids, which also help quell painful sensations and heightening positive emotions. The system includes the release of endorphins that produce the oft-sought "runner's high."
Participants did not smoke for 12 hours before the test. Then they smoked two cigarettes which had the nicotine removed from them, followed later by two cigarettes with nicotine. Their brains were monitored the whole time, and they were also asked how they felt at each step.
"It appears that smokers have an altered opioid flow all the time, when compared with non-smokers, and that smoking a cigarette further alters that flow by 20 to 30 percent in regions of the brain important to emotions and craving," said David Scott, a graduate student in the University of Michigan Neuroscience Program. "This change in flow as seen on a brain scan correlated with changes in how the smokers themselves reported feeling before and after smoking."
The study involved just six smokers, however, all males in their 20s who said they normally puffed 14 cigarettes a day. Scott and his colleagues say that despite the small number of participants, they were surprised at the large effect on opioid levels. The research will be expanded to include more participants.
Further study, the scientists suggest, might reveal why the habit is so hard to kick.
"The interaction of tobacco, and especially nicotine, with brain chemistry is a fascinating area that we're just beginning to understand, especially when it comes to correlating neurochemistry with behavior," said study leader Jon-Kar Zubieta, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the university. "Just as with the ‘hard' drugs of abuse, such as heroin and cocaine, the phenomena of pleasure, addiction, increased tolerance and craving from tobacco are firmly rooted in neurochemistry."
However scientists did one more research especially for those who are eager to give up smoking. The final conclusion of their study was the following: “If you want to quit smoking don't plan on it, and don't despair”.
Recent research finds that a snap decision to quit smoking cigarettes is actually two to three times more effective than planning ahead for the big day.
Some smokers want to quit, but lack the motivation. Others have tried and failed. The trick, according to Robert West of University College London, is to let the motivation build ("This costs too much money," "I don't want to smoke around the kids," "I'm afraid of cancer" and so on) and then seize the day when a trigger to put down cigarettes suddenly emerges.
His research is based on interviews with 1,900 smokers and ex-smokers in England. He found that half of attempts to stop smoking involved no planning ahead and that unplanned attempts succeed for longer than planned attempts.
Effective triggers to quit can be small, in West's view, such as just being sick and tired of being sick and tired from smoking. Or large, such as a physician's delivery of news of precancerous cell growth or high cholesterol.
Many experts have thought that the stopping occurs in stages that start with thinking about stopping, then planning an attempt to actually try to quit.
West's research found that unplanned attempts to quit succeeded even after adjusting for study variables such as age, sex and socioeconomics. Quitting is not a cost-benefit game in the minds of smokers, he says. "It depends on how people feel and that is a whole different ballgame."
West's work suggests a tipping-point approach to anti-smoking campaigns. He says public health workers should capitalize on smokers' latent desire to quit by putting the idea of quitting in their minds, raising smokers' motivational tension momentarily to a level that can overcome their resistance to quitting and then lowering the barriers to action—such as helping them to think, "Why not quit?".
West also encourages the use of nicotine patches and other treatment and counseling to help quitters stay in remission. Recent research by Lawrence An of the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center shows that smokers who receive encouragement via telephone counseling sessions are more successful at quitting smoking than those who do not.
Surgery is also an effective trigger to quitting, other research shows. In fact, surgery is often one's best chance to quit smoking for good, according to David Warner of the Mayo Clinic.
Doctors have long known that nonsmokers and recent quitters recover better from surgery than smokers. Warner's review of research also shows that patients who stop smoking prior to surgery have better success withdrawing from cigarettes.
"For people who have thought about quitting smoking, the time of their surgery is a good opportunity to do so," Warner said. The anesthesia used during surgery and recovery probably helps with the nicotine withdrawal and other discomforts associated with quitting.
"This increases the chance for long-term success with smoking cessation," Warner said.
It's still unclear if kicking the cigarette habit is within reach for everyone. Some smokers try to quit hundreds of time and never succeed for very long.
Prepared by Alexander Timoshik
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