The Biggest Favor You Can Do for Your Heart

Since February is American Heart Month, without a doubt one of the biggest favors you can do for your heart is to quit smoking. The American Heart Association (AHA) states it’s the most preventable cause of death in the US, attributing to 20% of all deaths. Smokers will die on average almost 14 years earlier than non-smokers. And for every smoker that dies from smoke-related illnesses, there are 20 more living with a serious debilitating illness from smoking.

Smoking increases your risk of hardening of the arteries by damaging the inner walls, causing narrowing as well as increasing risk of clotting, all of which can lead to heart attack and stroke. And that doesn’t even mention all cancer risks associated with smoking. We can save those stats for another month!

Today it’s estimated that about 45 million people or 20% of the population in America smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of adult smokers actually want to quit.

Why Is It So Hard to Quit?

The main active ingredient in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco is nicotine, which is an addictive drug causing both physical and psychological dependence. Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration now regulates cigarettes as a drug. A Surgeon General’s report found that tobacco addiction has similar characteristics as addiction to heroin and cocaine.

Nicotine’s addiction is believed to work by stimulating reward pathways in the brain to release dopamine, a chemical signaling pleasure, commonly released when eating or during sex. It is also believed that nicotine releases endorphins, which are proteins that can lead to feelings of euphoria. At night, when you don’t smoke, those pathways shut down and you wake up craving a cigarette; studies find those addicted usually smoke within 10 minutes of waking up.

Tackling this Addiction on the Chemical Level

You don’t have to go it alone – cold turkey – any more. There are new medications on the market that help with the biochemistry related to addiction. Bupropion is an antidepressant discovered accidentally for nicotine addiction. It was found that depressed patients taking this medication also ended up quitting smoking even when they did not intend to do so. While the exact mechanism of how it works is not completely understood, many patients report their cravings are diminished and smoking had lost its appeal.

Another medication is called vareniciline. It works by binding the receptors in the brain and it prevents the nicotine from attaching there. Once this drug binds to the nicotine receptors, it releases much smaller amounts of dopamine; therefore, it calms craving. However, if you try to smoke, you get no pleasurable surge in dopamine release.

Addiction and Stress

A fascinating new area of addiction research is related to the association of addiction and stress. Addicted smokers report that it is especially difficult to try to quit smoking during times of stress. Not just smokers but most addicts find they relapse when faced with stressful situations.

According to a well-known addiction researcher and expert, Dr. Nicholas E. Goeders, Ph.D., Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology & Neuroscience at LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, says, “There is a long-standing association between stress and addiction, with stress influencing both the cause of the addiction as well as the relapse to drug use following abstinence.” 

With cocaine addiction, he found that a combination of two medications help addicts curb their physical and psychological need. By combining the medication metyrapone, which decrease levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol along, with an anti-anxiety medication, oxazepam, it actually reduced the urge for the addictive substance. He states, “By breaking the connection between stress and addiction, motivated individuals will be able to remain abstinent longer.”

It’s Never Too Late to Quit!

According to the AHA, if you quit smoking for about 10 years, your risk of stroke will be similar to a non-smoker. If you quit for over a year, your risk of heart attack is reduced by 50%. If you quit smoking for just 20 minutes, your blood pressure and heart rate will recover from the spike they got with the nicotine.

Do yourself a favor this February. Talk with your doctor about getting help to quit, because just as those old hokey traffic signs from the 1950s and 1960s said: “The life you save may be your own.”