After a killer lifting session and a 5k jaunt on the treadmill, what’s the first thing you reach for as you exit the gym? A power bar? A protein shake? An ice-cold bottle of water? What if I were to tell you that up until two weeks ago, my answer would have been a cigarette?
A regular smoker since the age of 13, I had long been undermining my efforts to get fit. Hours spent at the gym building my cardio endurance were undone the moment I stepped outside and sparked a du Maurier. Despite the hypocrisy of being a fitness fanatic while remaining a smoker, I couldn’t kick the habit.
It wasn’t until I started penning this column that I began to seriously consider the effects of cigarettes on my athletic performance. It also seemed ridiculous to be writing a regular fitness column while maintaining such an unhealthy habit. That’s why I decided to kick the butts once and for all, and I have been smoke free for exactly two weeks today. Now I’d like to provide those of you who are ready to stop smoking, or are even considering it, with the necessary information and resources to increase your chances of quitting successfully.
The most important tool in your quest to quit smoking is your own willpower. If you aren’t committed to kicking the habit, there isn’t a quit aid on the market that can help you. That said, there are a number of products available to help smokers quit gradually. To learn more about these options, I consulted Dr. Stephan Probst, a resident at the Montreal General Hospital.
Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs)
Designed to ease the symptoms of physical withdrawal by delivering a measured dose of nicotine, NRT is available in several forms including patches, gum, lozenges, inhaler and nasal spray. All come in different strengths that you decrease over time.
The patch is a time-released aid that is worn all day to keep nicotine cravings at bay. The others are taken as needed to quell cravings. “All these products are effective,” said Probst, “but methods that replace the act of smoking, such as gum and the inhaler, help with both the physical and psychological addictions.”
Side effects of NRTs may include nausea, dizziness and sleep disturbances, but these products are very safe when used correctly, said Probst.
One of the big problems with the use of NRTs is overcompensation, which causes symptoms that are often confused with those of withdrawal. “Someone who goes from smoking four cigarettes a day to wearing a patch that supplies a pack’s worth of nicotine is obviously going to feel the effects,” said Probst. The key to success with replacement therapy lies in matching your current level of nicotine consumption, then gradually reducing it.
Zyban is a non-nicotine prescription medication that helps to reduce withdrawal symptoms including anxiety, irritability, frustration and difficulty concentrating.
It is thought to work by affecting the same neurotransmitters in your brain that are short-circuited by nicotine. Treatment is started about a week before your chosen quit date and continues for a total of seven weeks, during which time NRTs may be employed to further reduce withdrawal symptoms. “Combining quit aids stacks the odds in your favour,” said Probst, “but be sure to consult your physician before taking another medication in tandem with Zyban.”
The most commonly reported side effects of Zyban are insomnia and dry mouth, but both are usually mild and disappear in a few weeks. Many people also experience a reduction in appetite. “The prospect of gaining weight often discourages people from quitting, but quitters who take Zyban gain significantly less weight than those who don’t,” Probst said.
If you’re wary of pharmaceuticals, there are other options available. Both acupuncture and hypnosis have become more popular in recent years.
Proponents of acupuncture claim that targeting specific pressure points on the body stimulates the brain to produce endorphins, the same “feel good” hormones that are released by cigarettes. Effects are usually felt within two hours and last four to six weeks–long enough to overcome the psychological cravings.
Hypnosis, on the other hand, is said to work by placing positive, smoke-free suggestions into the minds of those looking to quit. It also claims to help to modify thinking and behaviour, so events that previously triggered cravings–like the end of a meal, driving, or having a cup of coffee–are no longer associated with smoking.
These treatments can be expensive, however, and Probst added that there’s no guarantee they will work. “Scientific support for both acupuncture and hypnosis is weak,” he said.
Nicotine is addictive. It’s a drug your body has become accustomed to and will crave once you stop smoking. Quitting cold turkey is a scary thought for most smokers, but while cravings may be intense, this method is still the most effective.
It’s also wise to plan ahead, anticipating situations that will provoke the urge to smoke, and planning specific strategies to deal with them.
You must also be prepared for relapse.
Probst stressed that smokers trying to give up the habit first need to realize that they are not alone. Over 75 per cent of adult smokers would like to stop, and 60 per cent have tried at least once. Unfortunately, over 90 per cent of attempts to quit end in failure. “Most smokers relapse several times before they quit for good,” said Probst. “Learn from the relapse and try again. Eventually you’ll kick it.”