Smoking tobacco is an ancient practice that has endured into modern times. With records of smoking dating back over seven thousand years, the use of tobacco is certainly not a new phenomenon. However, the way tobacco is used today has changed greatly from how it was originally consumed. In traditional use, smoking raw tobacco was connected to religious practices and used occasionally for ceremonial purposes. Today any smoker will tell you that their use of tobacco is much more frequent and that tobacco products are as far from raw as can be imagined.
Tobacco smoking is probably the most popular form of recreational drug use, with over one billion smokers globally. Consequently, tobacco use is the single greatest cause of preventable death according to the WHO. Take a minute to let that sink in. The single greatest cause of preventable death. Up to half of the people who use tobacco die because of their use. Tobacco is responsible for around six million deaths annually, that is something like 10% of all deaths every year. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has called tobacco smoking “the single most important preventable risk to human health in developed countries and an important cause of premature death worldwide”.
If you’re reading this website you’re probably interested in improving your health and fitness as well as living a fulfilling life. There’s no way to avoid it: smoking tobacco harms all of these things. If you smoke, you massively increase the chances of contracting a smoking-related disease, most of which are pretty gruesome. Even if you don’t end up getting a specific illness like lung cancer as a result of smoking, being addicted to tobacco is a constant sickness. It reduces your lung capacity sapping your energy.
I’m going to go into the details of the damage you do when you smoke tobacco but also the great benefits you get as soon as you quit. If this article convinces even one person to quit, or to not start smoking in the first place, I will be extremely happy.
What Happens When You Smoke?
Your lungs are incredibly good at what they do. That is, they are very efficient at taking gases from the atmosphere and bringing them into your bloodstream and around your body. Usually the main gas they have available is air from which you get the oxygen we all need to stay alive. Unfortunately, when you inhale tobacco smoke your lungs are just as efficient at bringing chemicals into your bloodstream. Puffing on a cigarette delivers nicotine, and a host of other chemicals, from your lungs into your bloodstream and from there into your brain in a matter of seconds.
When these chemicals, including nicotine, arrive in your brain they trigger chemical reactions that provide stimulation and mirror the reaction to naturally occurring chemicals like dopamine that provide a sensation of pleasure or reward. This is the essence of why smoking tobacco is so addictive: inhalation brings enjoyable stimulation very quickly in a way that is very rewarding for your brain.
Logic is no used here, your brain’s reward pathways are so hardwired that even if you know all the negative health effects of smoking you will still automatically desire to smoke. Over time, as this behaviour continues reward system receptors in your brain start to down-regulate leading to development of tolerance. Basically, this means you need to smoke more to get the same feeling you originally had. Your brain’s natural reward system encourages you to smoke more and more accelerating the detrimental health effects of tobacco. These health effects are well documented and include some of the worst things that can happen your body: cancer, heart disease, lung disease as well as impotence, infertility and infection.
What Happens to Your Body When You Quit Smoking?
While the power of tobacco smoke is disturbing in terms of how addictive and destructive to your health it is, the benefits of quitting smoking are equally powerful. Once you quit, every minute you stay away from tobacco benefits your health. The problem with quitting is that you’re working against your body’s natural reward system. Intellectually, you know that not smoking is in your best interest, but physiologically all you can hear is that smoking would feel good. Knowing the good things that you’re doing for yourself at every stage of quitting can be very helpful in sustaining the motivation and willpower to quit. Here’s how quitting smoking benefits your health at every stage of the process.
20 minutes after quitting:
The benefits start to manifest as soon as you commit to quit. Within 20 minutes your heart rate will have started to decrease towards normal levels. What’s more, you’ll have the psychological benefit of knowing you’re taking the single most important step in improving your health.
2 hours after quitting:
Heart rate, blood pressure and peripheral circulation will all have improved after 2 hours without smoking. Your fingers might start to feel warm from your recovered circulation. However, it’s around the 2 hour mark when nicotine withdrawal and the first cravings appear. These will be unpleasant but remember the longer you resist them, the greater the benefit.
12 hours after quitting:
When you inhale tobacco smoke you take in carbon monoxide which is poisonous in high doses. Carbon monoxide bonds particularly well to blood cells and prevents these cells from transporting oxygen. After 12 hours the carbon monoxide levels in your body begin to decrease and your blood’s ability to transport oxygen improves. This should give you a small energy boost but it might be hard to notice while withdrawal symptoms are still present.
24 hours after quitting:
Even after just one day of being tobacco free the increased risk of a heart attack begins to diminish. This is really significant given that smokers face a 70% higher rate of heart attacks. After 24 hours the increased risk is still present but has started to fall.
48 hours after quitting:
Two days after quitting you’ll start to notice that smells and tastes are stronger and more vibrant than before. This is because nerve endings that were damaged by tobacco start to regrow improving your sense of smell and taste. These revitalised senses are one of the most rewarding aspects of quitting smoking, take the opportunity to appreciate your enhanced senses.
72 hours after quitting:
This is the time when withdrawal symptoms peak. At this point all nicotine from smoking has left your body and the urge to smoke again will be extreme. Unfortunately, physical symptoms including headaches, nausea and cramps are all normal but remember, the more you resist them the sooner they will leave. This is a good time to reward yourself using the money you would have spent on cigarettes over the last 3 days and remember that this is as difficult as quitting will get.
2 to 3 weeks after quitting:
Circulation and lung function will have regenerated to the extent that you’ll be able to move around and even exercise without feeling winded or sick. By now you should be breathing easier and feeling the new clarity in your lungs. Withdrawal symptoms should be almost completely gone by now as well leaving only positives in your quitting journey.
1 to 9 months after quitting:
No more than several months after quitting withdrawal symptoms will be gone for even the heaviest of smokers. During the first year of being tobacco free your lungs will start to repair themselves. The cilia, tiny hair like structure that remove mucus from the lungs, will start working again increasing your ability to fight off infections.
A 50% decrease in your risk of heart disease compared to when you were smoking and the same risk of stroke as a non-smoker are two big milestones after 1 and 5 years respectively.
Halving your risk of lung cancer and achieving the same risk of heart disease as a non-smoker is what you can look forward to after 10 and 15 years tobacco free.
Continuing benefits: As a non-smoker you can look forward to at least an extra decade of life with a healthier, properly functioning body.
How to Troubleshoot Quitting
As with most addictions the best way to stop is not to start in the first place. You can provide a good example to young people at risk of starting smoking by not smoking yourself or trying to quit. There are lots of great resources to help people quit smoking these days. It’s a great idea to find the tools that will help you quit successfully but there are a few principles that can make a big difference.
- Plan your quit: pick a date and think through how you can support yourself quitting
- Identify when you smoke: notice when and why you reach for the cigarettes and be ready for these occasions.
- Find replacements: distract yourself with a positive habit like eating healthily, exercising or even doing a crossword.
- Get help: ask someone who has quit successfully for advice and encouragement.
- Be accountable: tell people you’re quitting and make a plan for what you’ll do with the money you save.
For a smoker, quitting tobacco is the single best thing you can do for your health and well-being. There’s not much point in eating well or trying to get fit if you continually sabotage your body with cigarettes. Knowing the benefits of being tobacco free is a good motivation for quitting. Keep these improvements in mind if you decide to quit and things get tough. Remember, you can quit and quitters win!
If you know somebody who needs a little encouragement to quit smoking please share this article with them. And if you’ve already quit successfully I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.