5 Ways to Overcome Cigarette Cravings

Quitting is hard, but not impossible.

woman smoking a cigarette
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You know how bad smoking is for you. It’s the leading cause of preventable death in the US, responsible for more than 480,000 deaths every year.  You know that, and that’s why you decided to quit—but quitting isn’t as easy as just putting down your pack. A 2016 study published in BMJ Open suggests it may take 30 or more times trying to quit smoking to be successful. 

man with a headache smoking
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Nicotine and your brain

There are more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, but the nicotine in cigarettes is what’s habit forming. When you light up, molecules of nicotine travel to your brain, where they attach to parts of brain cells called acetylcholine receptors. These receptors play a part in body functions like muscle movement, breathing, heart rate, learning and memory, and they trigger the release of other chemicals that affect mood, appetite and other functions. Nicotine also triggers the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which is a key component in addiction. 

young woman smoking
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Why it’s so hard to quit

As your body gets addicted to nicotine, it gets to the point where not having it makes you feel sick. It’s called withdrawal. Common withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, headaches, increased appetite and trouble concentrating. These symptoms are unpleasant, but manageable. What’s toughest for more people are the the cravings. A small 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry that scanned the brains of people in nicotine withdrawal found that they have trouble shifting their brains from an autopilot-like mode to a mode that allows them to exert more control. The following strategies may help reduce the cravings. 

nitcotine gum
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Nicotine replacement therapy

What better way to stop nicotine cravings than more nicotine? No, it’s not cheating, it’s nicotine replacement therapy, which includes nicotine patches, gum and lozenges. You’ll still experience withdrawals because the nicotine replacement methods aren’t as efficient at delivering nicotine as smoking, but the withdrawals won’t be as severe. Using nicotine replacement therapy can increase your chance of quitting by 50 to 70 percent. 

pharmacist giving someone medicine
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There are a number of prescription drugs that can help reduce cravings. Varenicline binds to the same receptors as nicotine, reducing the urge to smoke and reducing withdrawal symptoms. It should be started a week or two before you have your last cigarette. Bupropion is an antidepressant that can help reduce cravings. Both of these drugs carry the risk of serious side effects, so a healthcare provider’s guidance is essential. 

young man meditating
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Smokers trying to quit are often urged to take it one day—or hour, or minute—at a time. Mindfulness is the embodiment of that concept. Mindfulness is all about staying in the present and being acutely aware of what’s going on in any given moment. It may sound like torture for someone fighting a craving, but a small 2016 study suggested that brief mindfulness practice reduced cravings compared to a control, and the mindfulness group also smoked less over two weeks. 

mature woman doing yoga
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Research shows that yoga can blunt nicotine cravings. A small 2011 study found that following one hour of abstinence from nicotine and a half hour session of yoga, participants reported a decrease in cravings across the board. In the same study, people who did 30 minutes of brisk treadmill walking reported a decrease in cravings in response to certain smoking cues.

rear view of woman jogging
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Of all the alternative, non-medicinal forms of smoking cessation, exercise may be one of the most consistent and reliable ways to reduce cravings. A 2016 review of 18 studies on exercise and smoking found that 17 showed the effectiveness of exercise in reducing cravings. And you don’t have to run a marathon or set a world record to reap the benefits; a 2014 study suggests that even light exercise significantly reduces cravings. 

young man taking a deep breath
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In-the-moment tactics

What do you do if your prescription has run out, your patches are out of reach or you’re stuck in traffic and can’t get out for a 30-minute yoga session? Here are some tips to beat back cravings any time, anywhere.

  • Take five to ten deep breaths
  • Call a friend, a family member or someone supportive of your goal to quit
  • Cut back on caffeine, which can increase your heart rate and your stress
  • Keep your hands and mouth busy by chewing gum or squeezing a stress ball
  • Keep your will to quit strong by staying away from alcohol, which can reduce inhibitions

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