Can Quitting Smoking Help Treat Depression?

Smoking acts as an antidepressant, making smokers feel good, at least in the short term. For years, physicians and smokers alike worried that quitting smoking would exacerbate depression in people who were already depressed.

Researchers are accumulating evidence to disprove this notion. In fact, a new study found an inverse relationship over time between quitting smoking and a reduction in depressive symptoms. In other words, the more time that passed after quitting, the less depressed the former smokers were. Most previous studies compared smokers to other smokers. This study evaluated the same group of smokers over time.

Link between Smoking and Depression

Smoking is a significant risk factor for depression. Smokers are sensitive to stress and depression and may use smoking to self-medicate and improve their mood.

Nicotine-dependent smokers are two times more likely to have recently experienced depression than non-smokers. Furthermore, roughly three quarters of psychiatric patients are also smokers and half of them are nicotine dependent. Teens are particularly vulnerable: non-depressed teens who smoke are roughly four times at greater risk for developing depression. As smokers age, increasing nicotine-dependent symptoms are significantly associated with increasing rates of depression.

If you smoke your first cigarette shortly after waking, if you smoke more frequently in the hours after rising, and if you are a heavy daily smoker, you're probably nicotine dependent.

As any smoker will attest, nicotine triggers satisfaction and pleasure centers in the brain. Smokers also develop expectations about the outcome of smoking; they believe they will feel good if they smoke. Together these positive rewards make it hard for smokers to abstain despite the health risks.

In the recent study cited above, researchers found that people who stopped smoking and then started again were cheeriest during abstinence. When they returned to smoking, they were sometimes even sadder than before they quit. People who never quit remained unhappy.

Quitting smoking is difficult and produces unpleasant short-term side effects. Experts recommend a multi-pronged approach to help smokers successfully manage the transition. Some antidepressants such as buproprion (Wellbutrin) ease temporary depression and anxiety. Nicotine replacement therapy reduces withdrawal symptoms and cognitive behavioral therapy helps smokers develop stress and anxiety coping mechanisms.

The bottom line is that quitting smoking improves your mood and your physical well-being.


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