Whether you’re just thinking about breaking up with cigarettes or your quit journey has already begun, know that a smoke-free life is packed with benefits.
From your mental health to your physical fitness and daily routine, there are a lot of positive changes that happen when you quit smoking.
What happens to your lungs when you quit smoking
Your lungs are the big beneficiaries when you smoke your last cigarette.
The American Lung Association says your lung function will increase by around 30% within two weeks after quitting. Then, you will start to notice you’re coughing a lot less, and your shortness of breath will decrease within two months to one year.
Cilia, the tiny hair-like structures that work to reject mucus from your lungs, will also start to function normally again. They’ll begin to manage your mucus and clean your lungs more efficiently, reducing your risk of infection.
And the big long-term gain for your lungs is after 10 to 15 years, your risk of lung cancer will be half that of someone of a similar age who keeps smoking.
What happens to your brain when you quit smoking
Nicotine is a highly addictive substance. All it takes is a few seconds from that first puff for the nicotine to efficiently make its way from your lungs and up to your head. If you’ve been smoking for a while, specific brain receptors will be there on standby, eagerly waiting to welcome the nicotine and release a nice dopamine hit to give you that little buzz you’ve probably come to rely on.
However, unfortunately for these brain receptors of yours, once the nicotine wears off (within hours or even minutes), your brain is left craving another dopamine hit. It works hard to convince your body that nicotine is the best way to get that dopamine and you are likely to find you quickly go into withdrawal symptoms such as: irritation, anxiousness, hunger and restlessness. Once you have another cigarette, these unpleasant feelings fade… and then return once more.
Nicotine replacement therapy may be able to help your brain receptors calm down, reduce your cravings, and break this cycle while you quit.
Smoking has also been shown to damage your brain’s cortex (the outer layer), which is critical for brain functions like memory and language. Your cortex growing thinner is just a normal part of aging, and studies have found that smoking speeds up this process, leading to cognitive deterioration and the onset of conditions such as dementia.
According to the study, quitting cigarettes helped slow this damage. Even though the healing process was slow, the study’s subjects partially recovered their cortical thickness for each year without smoking.
What happens to your anxiety when you quit smoking
Many people experience anxiety and irritability when they quit smoking, and it’s a reliable sign that the nicotine has done its job of keeping you hooked.
While it feels like all that stands between you and an anxiety-reducing mood boost is another cigarette, smoking is often what’s causing you anxiety in the first place.
For most people who quit smoking, anxiety builds over the first three days, and it may last for several weeks.
Read that again: anxiety after quitting may last for a few weeks, not forever, which is what your brain is likely to be telling you during this time.
During these critical early days of your new smoke-free life, put some strategies in place to help get you through the rough times.
To reduce your anxiety:
- remind yourself it will pass (and then remind yourself, again and again, that this is temporary)
- make time for your fitness. It can start with a walk if you’re new to exercise, or have a think about the type of physical activity that you’re likely to enjoy and will improve your mindset
- try meditation or other relaxation techniques, such as getting a massage or soaking in a hot bath
- speak to your doctor about your anxiety and if nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) are suitable for you
- investigate hypnotherapy to learn how it can support your mental health while trying to quit.
What happens to your depression when you quit smoking
Cigarettes are not your friend if you’re prone to depression.
If you are taking antidepressants or antipsychotic medication for depression or schizophrenia, you may actually need a higher dose, as smoking interferes with how these medications work.
There’s evidence suggesting stopping smoking, with time, has the same effect on your depression symptoms as antidepressants. And while this is good news, also be aware that if you are experiencing poor mental health then you may experience more severe withdrawal symptoms, so it’s important that before you quit, you talk to your doctor.
But more severe withdrawal symptoms doesn’t mean less chances of successfully quitting. Beyond Blue, a mental health advocacy organization, says that even if you’ve had depression in the past, your chances of quitting for good are about the same as someone who hasn’t had depression.
If you don’t normally have depression, feeling low after quitting smoking is still common. If mild depression occurs, it will usually begin within the first day of your last cigarette. However, similar to anxiety, you may experience it for just a couple of weeks while you transition to your new smoke-free life, and it should subside within a month.
Speak to your doctor if you know depression will be an issue for you once you quit, as prescription medications may help. There’s evidence that bupropion and nortriptyline can help people with a history of depression quit smoking.
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What happens to your fitness when you quit smoking
Whether you’re a gym junkie or prefer sticking to low-impact walks, your fitness improves in so many ways once your quit journey has begun.
For a start, your resting heart rate has already reduced within just 20 minutes of your last cigarette. Your performance will continue to elevate as your blood circulation increases and your lung function improves.
Studies show that even short periods of sweat-inducing aerobic exercise that causes you to breathe harder and makes your heart beat faster—think boxing, walking, running, or dancing—will strengthen your heart and lungs.
The Cancer Institute of New South Wales in Australia said it should take anywhere from two to 12 weeks for exercise to become easier.
Once you’ve quit cigarettes, an exercise routine will also help you keep cravings at bay, reduce stress, limit your weight gain, and help you better manage withdrawal symptoms, which will decrease for up to 50 minutes after exercising.
What happens to your heart when you quit smoking
Similar to your lungs, your heart has a lot to gain when you quit smoking.
When you light up, smoking reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, damages your blood vessel walls, and contributes to atherosclerosis, which is when your arteries thicken or harden, reducing your blood supply.
Plus, smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack and three times more likely to have a stroke.
The good news is your heart health can improve within six hours after your last cigarette—this is all it takes for your heart rate to slow and your blood pressure to become more stable. Then within just one day, oxygen will be reaching your heart (as well as your muscles) more easily as your bloodstream will be almost free of nicotine, and the carbon monoxide in your blood will have reduced.
Two significant long-term benefits you stand to gain once you have quit for good are your risk of heart disease will drop significantly within two to five years, and your risk of heart attack and stroke will be similar to that of someone who has never smoked after 20 years.
What happens to your weight when you quit smoking
You may already know that cigarettes suppress your appetite, and nicotine is responsible for ramping up your metabolism. So, once you’ve kicked the habit for good, gaining a small amount of weight is a common side effect.
Most people gain around five to 10 pounds (2.25kg to 4.5kg) because your body is now burning fewer calories and you’re feeling hungrier.
The other contributor to your weight creeping up is that once cigarettes are no longer keeping your mouth occupied, many people turn to high-calorie foods that might not have been a part of their diet while they were still smoking.
Start building a plan now to devise a healthy way to quit that will keep your weight gain to a minimum. Stock your kitchen with healthy foods that you can grab quickly when cravings set in, and think more about your fitness and adding aerobic exercise to your routine.
What happens to your routine when you quit smoking
Expect your routine to be given a shake-up when you quit cigarettes for good.
Many smokers have ritualized cigarette habits, such as they’re the first thing you reach for when your alarm goes off, or you and a friend from work head out together mid-morning for a smoke break like clockwork.
To break up with cigarettes, start by identifying when you’re most likely to smoke throughout the day. Once you have this figured out, you will know when your routine needs to adjust and how to plan for those trigger times.
For example, can you shift your mid-morning smoke break with colleagues outside your office door to a nearby smoke-free cafe for a quick coffee instead?
Another way you can adjust your routine is by creating safe environments for yourself. Think about your danger zones, such as the inside of your car. Ensure the cigarettes stashed in your glove compartment are now in the trunk (or the trash), consider removing your car’s cigarette lighter altogether, and have some gum on-hand.
It’s also important that you speak up, as while smoking is no longer in your routine, it doesn’t mean others around you are ready to change theirs. Let smoker friends know you’ve quit, ask them not to light up around you, and tell them you don’t want to be tempted with a friendly offer of a free cigarette.
Your new routine will feel different and maybe a bit weird for a while, but you will adjust by focusing on everything you have to gain from your new normal.
What about withdrawal?
Fearing withdrawal symptoms like poor sleep, irritability, anxiety, and weight gain are common, and it can feel like a Herculean task to keep going.
To make it through this challenging period, start with your mindset—what if you looked at your withdrawal symptoms as a sign your body is recovering? From this point of view, the symptoms become a positive indication that your body is working hard to undo the damage.
It’s also important to keep in mind that withdrawal symptoms are temporary, and they disappear completely for most people after two to four weeks. Feel confident that within a month, the worst of withdrawal will be behind you. It may feel like withdrawal symptoms will last forever (and you might be telling yourself this on an endless loop), but smoking researchers have long confirmed it really won’t, no matter what your brain is telling you during the worst of it.
If you know you’re on shaky ground and the first month after you quit will be the toughest, speak to your doctor to devise a plan, and investigate options like hypnotherapy or nicotine replacement therapy to ensure you have coping strategies in place.
The Wrap Up
There are so many benefits to kicking your smoking habit for good. Your lung function will improve within two short weeks, and with time, your brain will begin to heal from the damage inflicted by cigarettes. Researchers have long established that smoking can interfere with your brain chemistry, and managing anxiety and depression will become easier once you quit too. Additionally, your fitness performance will also see improvements. While your routine will need a shake-up to make your cigarette-free plan stick, letting go of old habits will improve your life in myriad ways. Withdrawal isn’t easy, but the benefits of quitting will always outweigh the tough times.