Why is it so Difficult to Stop Smoking?

Even now, with all the negative press and media attention about smoking, many of us still do it. We like the taste, or we become dependent on the feeling we get when we smoke. I quit smoking about 5 years ago. I realized I was not smoking for the enjoyment of them anymore. I was smoking to avoid the discomfort of nicotine withdrawal.

With smoking addictions, the brain stops producing as much acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter, and it has specific neuroreceptors. To better understand nicotine addiction, it is good to understand the function of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps to form the pathways to deliver nerve impulses from our brain to our voluntary and involuntary muscles which control movement, breathing and heart function. Acetylcholine also controls the rate at which information enters the brain; this neurotransmitter also influences memory and learning.

Nicotine is a deadly poison; it is a natural insecticide. The tobacco plant manufactures nicotine to protect its leaves from insects. In the same amounts, nicotine is as potent as rattlesnake venom and strychnine. Also, in the same quantities, nicotine is 3 times more deadly than arsenic.

With a smoking addiction, the nicotine replaces acetylcholine, but nicotine does not work the same way that acetylcholine does. In the body, acetylcholine is regulated by the body; nicotine is not. Nicotine switches the cholinergic neurons to the on position all over the brain. Nicotine revs up the cholinergic functioning within the body, which is why we often feel like we can work and concentrate better when smoking. It works similarly to the way the caffeine in coffee revs us up. Have you ever felt like you couldn’t get going in the morning without your first cigarette and cup of coffee in the morning? This is why; your brain is being flooded with acetylcholine and other hormones.

Why is quitting tobacco so difficult?

An addiction to anything, including tobacco, creates new neural circuitry in the brain. We get a reward when nicotine creates new circuitry; it feels good. The pleasant rewards that we experienced from our first cigarettes enticed us keep using tobacco. The reward we get from smoking is similar to the reward we might get from cocaine and amphetamines, but the reward for nicotine isn’t as intense as it is for harder drugs. The more we smoked, the more the neuronal pathways became reinforced, which lead to habitual smoking.

Breaking an addiction is, oftentimes, may be uncomfortable to endure for a few days or weeks, but it can be done. It takes time for the brain to get out from under the influence of nicotine. It takes time for the neuroreceptors for nicotine to diminish. The presence of nicotine reduces by over 90 percent within the first 8 hours of quitting. Your blood pressure and blood oxygen levels will return to what your normal should be. The carbon monoxide level in your blood should be cut by half within the first 8 hours after quitting.

The worst part of quitting smoking is getting through the first 24 to 48 hours. While the brain is recovering from being hijacked by nicotine, you will likely feel the effects of nicotine withdrawal. The anxiety (part of the fight or flight response), irritability, and other withdrawal symptoms are only temporary. These symptoms will eventually subside when the body readjusts to its acetylcholine levels getting back down to normal.


There is more to a smoking addiction than nicotine. There is also a psychological dependence. The idea of quitting smoking is, oftentimes, a very scary thought. The question arises, “what will I do with my hands?” or “What will I do all day without a cigarette?” You will get through it. Every day you don’t smoke should get easier. A craving only lasts for a few seconds or a minute or two. Nearly all of us who have quit have gone through this. For me, the cravings diminished in intensity every day that I didn’t smoke. However, any day that I “fell off the wagon,” the addictive crave would become strong again, and I was at square one.

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