Stopping smoking isn't easy – as anyone who's ever tried knows. But you might be surprised to learn just how addictive nicotine can be. Research shows that the nicotine in cigarettes is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. And just like these drugs, nicotine changes the structure of a smoker's brain – causing you to crave more and more to achieve the same "hit".
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Deprive yourself of nicotine and your brain is likely to rebel with strong cravings. At the same time, you may experience a range of withdrawal symptoms, from irritability, restlessness and trouble concentrating to dizziness, constipation and insomnia.
Breaking the addiction is so difficult that one study found that about 50% of lung cancer patients resumed smoking after undergoing surgery. While it's not easy, there are many products and treatment options available to help – and with the right support and motivation you can quit for good.
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products come in a variety of forms, including patches, gums, lozenges and sprays. They contain therapeutic nicotine to combat cravings and ease withdrawal symptoms, making it easier to stop smoking.
The idea is to follow a step-down approach, so that you reduce the strength of patch or lozenges you use over a number of weeks, until you wean yourself off nicotine completely. Some people find that it helps to use a patch to combat everyday cravings, and use lozenges and gums for unexpected cravings.
Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals and it's these substances that cause cancer and harm your health. Nicotine replacement products contain only nicotine (at much lower quantities than cigarettes) and the nicotine is released into the body differently to smoking – which means you're highly unlikely to become addicted to them.
Studies suggest that NRT products can increase your chances of quitting by 50-70% compared to quitting using willpower alone. You can buy them from chemists and supermarkets, or they can be prescribed for free through the NHS.
Quit with others
Group coaching and counselling sessions can help provide motivation and support from people who know what you're going through. The NHS provides free local stop smoking clinics - or call the NHS Stop Smoking helpline on 0300 123 1044 for advice. You will normally be offered a one-to-one appointment with an adviser, but many areas also offer group and drop-in services.
A combination approach using NRT and coaching can work well. A study from the University of Oxford found that smokers who combined NRT or medication with behavioural counselling were 70-100% more likely to quit.
Herbal remedies, such as valerian, may help you deal with feelings of anxiety and restlessness when you stop smoking. While some claim that other herbs – such as St John's Wort, green oats and lobelia – can reduce cravings, studies into their efficacy have proved inconclusive. If you plan to take a natural remedy, speak to your GP, as some can have side effects and should only be taken in small doses.
Many people have found positive results through hypnotherapy. During the treatment, a hypnotherapist will help you to relax and enter a trance like state, similar to daydreaming, and then make helpful suggestions which encourage you to quit. If you're considering hypnotherapy, make sure you find a qualified therapist.
Alan Carr's Easy Way to Smoke Smoking
You might wonder how reading a book can help you quit, but thousands of people - including celebrities like Ruby Wax - have stopped smoking after reading Alan Carr's Easy Way to Smoke Smoking. Costing just £6.99, it's worth trying the bestseller for yourself.
E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in recent years. As many as 2.6 million adults in the UK currently use them. Of these, around 1.1 million have given up smoking while 1.4 million continue to use tobacco alongside their e-cigarette use, according to a ASH/YouGov Smokefree Britain survey.
E-cigarettes work by heating a solution that contains nicotine but without most of the harmful effects of smoking. Because there is no burning involved, they don't produce tar and carbon monoxide – two of the main toxins in cigarette smoke.
Although e-cigarettes have been found to contain some potentially harmful chemicals, these are at much lower levels than found in cigarette smoke. Using an e-cigarette is around 95% safer than smoking, according to a review by Public Health England.
You can buy e-cigarettes and vaporizers with different strength cartridges and even nicotine-free options, so it should be possible to wean yourself off nicotine if you choose.