Let’s face it, people smoke because they enjoy it. When you inhale nicotine, it immediately rushes to the brain, resulting in feelings of pleasure and reduced stress and anxiety. The pleasurable sensations result from nicotine stimulating the release of the chemicals dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain. How can something that feels so good, be bad for you?
Over time, the feelings of well-being feed on more and more nicotine as the nerve cells become immune to the pleasure of smoking. In addition, nicotine is highly addictive – making it extremely difficult to quit smoking.
Apart from smelly clothes, hair and breath (the smoker is usually oblivious to these), there are no short term negative effects of smoking, besides the nicotine addiction. It is the longer term effects of smoking that is detrimental to your health, and research has shown that this includes all types of smoking and even second hand smoke (passive smoking).
We’ll briefly deal with the three major health hazards linked to smoking.
Let’s start with the effect of smoking on the lungs:
- The internal mucosal layer of the airways is equipped with tiny hairs called cilia. These cilia with their layer of sticky mucus catch dust, contaminants and other foreign substances that we inhale. Such debris is then – through the “mucus escalator” effect of the villi – moved upwards towards the nose area, where it can then be removed manually by cleaning one’s nose. The lungs aid this process via coughing, sneezing or swallowing. Smoking causes the cilia to work much slower, reducing the effectiveness of getting rid of these debris, allowing it to gain access to the lungs.
- Smoking can cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is a destructive disease of the air sacs in the lungs, limiting the exchange of oxygen between the air that we breathe and the bloodstream. The primary symptom is shortness of breath. Chronic bronchitis refers to swelling and inflammation in the bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs. This constrains the breathing and causes shortness of breath, tightness of the chest, coughing and sneezing.
Then there is the effect of smoking on the cardiovascular system:
- Smoking can damage the heart, as it may cause thickening of the blood vessels in the heart, making the heart beat faster and increasing blood pressure, as well as causing the blood to clot easier.
- Smoking increases the risk of the build-up of plaque in the arteries, resulting in the hardening and narrowing of arteries and blood vessels, restricting the flow of blood (and oxygen) in the body.
- Smoking increases the risk of a stroke, caused by a clot blocking the flow of blood to the brain, or when an artery in the brain bursts.
The third major risk of smoking is the link to various types of cancer:
- Smoking has been linked to various kinds of cancer, of which the obvious one is cancer of the lungs. Other types of cancer include cancer of the mouth, lips, throat, larynx (voice box), liver, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, bladder, blood, and kidneys.
- Cancer can also result from some of the more than 4 000 chemicals found in cigarettes. (See picture above)
It is very hard to quit smoking, due to the highly addictive nature of nicotine. The absence of nicotine change the levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain and can make you feel anxious, irritable and depressed. These are normal withdrawal symptoms as one stops smoking, but will slowly abate over time.
Hints to quit smoking include the following:
- Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) can help to deal with the withdrawal symptoms. Various patches, gums, inhalers and lozenges are available. It is advisable to get advice in this regard from your medical practitioner.
- Select a day to stop smoking and mentally prepare for it. It helps to identify the triggers that makes you reach for a smoke, for example after eating or drinking, and prepare yourself for alternative activities when you yearn for a smoke.
- List the reasons why you want to quit and refer to them when your resolve reaches a low, and the temptation is great to just have one more cigarette!
- Share your decision with people close to you, their support would strengthen your resolve.
- The stronger your commitment, the more successful you will be.
- Prepare for the extreme withdrawal symptoms, which usually peaks within the first three weeks. Keep your hands busy, as you suddenly no longer keep them busy with your cigarettes. Try coloring-in books, games on your mobile phone or doing Soduko. Stock up on healthy snacks to keep your mouth busy. You may experience an initial eating and snacking craze, which will subside over time.
- Spring clean your house, car and clothes to get rid of the lingering smell of stale smoke. You’ll suddenly discover that other smokers have a smelly aura of stale smoke around them!
- A daily exercise program will make you feel better through the increased flow of oxygen to the brain.
- Save your smoking money for special treats, it is amazing how quickly it accumulates.
Light smoking: Dangerous in any dose. Published May 2015. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. (www.health.harvard.edu)
What happens to your body when you smoke? Undated article by Dr. Mercola. (www.drmercola.com)
What are the health risks of smoking? Publication last reviewed 28 November 2015. National Health Service, UK. (www.nhs.uk)
Why is smoking addictive? Publication last reviewed 21 December 2015. National Health Service, UK. (www.nhs.uk)