Smoking & Physical Addiction

Smoking Kills - Skeleton smoking cigaretteAddiction is a multifaceted topic, and there are articles that deal with both the physical and mental factors associated with quitting smoking. The mental factors include such things as using cigarettes to combat stress, having something to do with your hands, using them as a crutch or procrastination device or even to combat boredom.

Why do we light them then? If it was simply an issue of habit, then why doesn’t holding a pen to our lips suppress the urge to light up?

I think nicotine addiction has much more to do with physiological rather than mental factors. In terms of addictive potential, nicotine comes in third after heroin and cocaine (1), and is an aggressive nervous system stimulant. I firmly believe that the battle in quitting smoking can be won once we fully understand the physical process at play first, and the dealing with the cravings through physical and mental exercises, along with a proper nutrition program to support our nervous system.

Nervous System Physiology 101

“Diminished autonomy and control over smoking is seen in 25% of students after smoking nicotine only once and in 35% after smoking it 3 to 4 times.”(2)

When it comes to addiction, the role of the nervous system should never be underestimated. Let’s first take a brief look at how it works.

The human nervous system can be thought of as a communications network – there are channels (nerves) and outposts (organs, glands) where signals are being passed by hormones (messengers). There are many branches and sub-systems with the central, or main nervous system, but the one we’re going to look at is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – the one responsible for organic (organ) functions.

We’re largely unconscious of the workings of the ANS as it’s the system that’s responsible for digestion, repair of organs and tissues, and energy production. There are two main branches to the ANS, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).

Both the PNS and the SNS can be thought of as complimentary processes. The SNS dominates during the day, it’s the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress and stimuli. It keeps alert, gives you the energy to do jobs, and diverts oxygen to your lungs, heart and muscles. The PNS dominates at night – it stimulates digestion, detoxifies the body, and prepares you for rest and repair.  It’s the ‘rest and digest‘ response.

Within both these systems are glands and organs that function as components for the processes mentioned above. These processes use hormones as chemical messengers, and the two hormones that we’re going to address in context of nicotine addiction are insulin & adrenaline.

How Smoking Affects the Nervous System

Like caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant. When you smoke, the adrenal glands release ‘adrenaline’ and in doing so the heart rate increases, the blood vessels contract and air passages dilate.(3) This process gives you energy, makes you feel ‘high’ – in other words, it feels good. Along with the production of dopamine (4) – a ‘feel good’ brain chemical – this is the main reason why we light up, and continue to light up throughout the day.

Do you ever notice when you quit smoking you feel tired, lethargic or depressed? Years of lighting up have made your adrenal glands weak and tired because you were stimulating them all day long, keeping your sympathetic nervous system constantly active. Now that you understand this, consider the nights you spent out in bars or clubs until the morning hours, constantly stimulating your adrenals with all those cigarettes! It’s no wonder that once you stop smoking the body shifts to parasympathetic dominance, or rest mode.

In addition to that, smoking affects insulin production. In a nutshell, insulin is the hormone that regulates your blood sugar – hunger pangs & cravings for sweets. By smoking you’re inhibiting the release of this hormone(5), which results in decreased feelings of hunger. So when you stop smoking what happens is an increased cravings for sweets, which is what the ex-smoker typically feels when they have cravings, and why people eat candies or cookies to alleviate those feelings and gain weight. It’s not in you head.

So we have these two issues to deal with when quitting smoking: decreased energy/depression & increased cravings for sweets. If you can deal with those, then putting a pen to your lips without lighting it will suffice whenever you have the urge to do something with your hands. Let’s take a look next on how we can make this happen.

NeuronHow Balancing the Nervous System Helps the Quitting Process

Earlier we discussed two issues when quitting smoking:

(1) Decreased energy and depression
(2) Cravings for sweets and weight gain

When we quit smoking and the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, there are things we can do to reactivate the sympathetic nervous system and increase our energy. They include:


This includes walking, biking, jogging, standing up from your office chair and doing arm circles – anything to get oxygen moving through your system. A great tactic would be to walk up a couple flights of stairs, take the elevator down, and repeat. Movement activates the SNS, diverts oxygen to your muscles and gives you energy. For those who are trained, High Intensity Interval Training (or HIIT) is very effective at activating the SNS.

If you were a long-time smoker you must get a clearance from your doctor first before beginning.

Eat Real Food

Real food is what your grandmother put on your plate: meat, potatoes & vegetables that were in season, not flown in from 2000 miles away. Fake food is anything with more than 1 ingredient in it: packaged cookies, cakes, tins of prepared food, processed food. These fake foods contain a lot of simple sugars in them that elevate your blood sugar and cause insulin swings throughout the day.

I recommend starting to eat Real Food first, then attempting to quit smoking.

Reduce intake of Carbohydrates

If you find that you’re very low on energy, need to take naps during the day, or are ingesting a lot of sweets or caffeine to stay awake, this could be an indication that you’re shifting full on into parasympathetic mode. Like I mentioned earlier, the parasympathetic system is the one that activates when the body digests and repairs, so eating heavily activates this system. Save the potatoes, pot roast and rice for later on, and try eating smaller meals lower in carbohydrates during the day, or while at work.

Cutting Down on Cigarettes Gradually

It’s difficult to go from a one pack a day habit to zero, and this presents a shock to the nervous system. For some people they can gradually cut back the number of cigarettes before quitting altogether, but for others it’s all or nothing. For the latter group I recommend cutting out all the unnecessary cigarettes. You don’t need to smoke when you’re bored, waiting for the bus or train, while you’re on the phone, or working at your desk. A good strategy is to put a mirror right in front of where you work and observe yourself smoking and how unattractive it is. If you’re out with friends, share cigarettes rather than having whole ones, or have a couple puffs and throw it away.

Reduce intake of Alcohol

I’ve met a lot of people who only ‘smoke when they drink’ and this is because alcohol is a nervous system depressant, and the cigarettes act as a stimulant to balance out brain chemistry. It’s not necessary to quit drinking altogether, although this could be a long-term goal. Drinking with your friends on the weekend is one thing, having a couple everyday after work is another. Try balancing the after-work beers with after-work exercise sessions, and you’ll see benefits on so many levels.

Woman breaking a cigarette in halfMaking the Decision to Stop

In the end, it’s about whether you really want to quit or not. A good exercise is to write out reasons for why you want to quit and reasons for why you want to continue. Quitting smoking affects many parts of our life – our physical health, relationships, work/career, among other aspects. The trick is to define what aspects of your life are important, and to find reasons for quitting smoking that affect each part. Here’s an example:

Reasons to Quit Smoking

  • whiter teeth (physical)
  • more attractive body (physical)
  • healthier skin (physical)
  • more money (financial)
  • less time wasted (vocational)
  • less embarrassment (relationships)
  • more respect for self (personal)
  • more respect from others (relationships)
  • clearer mind (physical)

Reasons to Keep On Smoking

  • ?

By writing out reasons and setting goals we solidify our intentions to accomplish those goals. In addition to understanding the physical components of addiction, I hope this mental exercise will help as well. I wish you all the best of luck.

About the Author

Cassandra is a former smoker and currently works as a personal trainer based in Toronto Canada. She prefers to write as a guest on her favourite blogs, and can be reached through Facebook:  Cassandra Damiris Facebook


  1. Addictive Behaviors, May 2008, Volume 33(5), Pages 689-698
  2. Substance dependence. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from
  3. Epinephrine. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from
  4. Nicotine Addiction 101 . John R. Polito. Retrieved September 28, 2010,
  5. Joseph L. Borowitz1 and Gary E. Isom. “Nicotine and Type 2 Diabetes.” Toxicological Sciences. Volume 103, Issue2 (March 2008): Pp. 225-227. (Retrieved September 28, 2010).

Cassandra Damiris

Cassandra is a personal trainer and writer based in Toronto Canada. She enjoys writing guest posts on blogs all over cyberspace along with her own at

5 thoughts on “Smoking & Physical Addiction

  • October 17, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    This article is why you shouldn’t even try a cigarette lol They’re horrible for your health!

  • October 13, 2010 at 8:51 pm


    yikes! You can never help a smoker by scaring him. I was a smoker and I helped 2 other people to quit smoking. Neither of those were done out of fear. If it was only fear – I’d puff right now :)

    The only 2 working ways to quit smoking are Allen Carr’s book (really works – both smokers quit after it) and electronic cigarettes (that’s what helped me – I’ve started smoking those non-tobacco ones and in about 2 months I’ve discovered that I don’t have an addiction anymore).

    Still have to be vigilant though (like Meri suggests) – just one of those bad boys could really get you back into a habit.

    • October 14, 2010 at 4:23 am

      That’s a great book Slava, and thanks for the suggestion! I agree wholeheartedly that fear prevents people from quitting.

  • October 13, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Cassandra, I’m crazy about this post and I’m adding it to my list of crucial resources on my health coaching blog at

    As a former smoker (it’s been almost 36 years since I smoked but I know I could fall back into the pit if I lit up even once), I appreciate the depth of information you’ve included here on the mental, emotional and PHYSICAL issues involved in stopping smoking. It’s hard. And it’s do-able. Thanks so much for sharing this much rich information in one posting!

    • October 14, 2010 at 4:21 am

      Meri, my grandmother quit smoking 30 years ago and says the same thing – that you cannot light up again, even once.

      I’ll be frank and will admit that around others who do smoke I’ve been known to sneak one here and there – just for the record! It hasn’t affected my outlook much as I have better reasons to stay smoke-free than to smoke at all. I stay focused on those reasons and it really helps. Thanks for your comment and best of luck!


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