Understanding Smoking Dependence

Why Do People Become Dependent on Smoking?

Smoking dependence involves many factors, including nicotine, genetics, and even how our brain remembers the times and places we smoke.

It helps to understand that we all have a ‘reward’ area in our brain, where ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine are naturally released whenever we do something we enjoy.

When you smoke, this natural reward system is taken over by nicotine.

Nicotine is able to bind to certain types of brain receptors that enable the release of dopamine. This binding leads to events where larger amounts of rewarding dopamine are released.

Due to its rewarding nature, this dopamine ‘hit’ drives us to repeat the experience – and this is a key part of smoking dependence.

As a person becomes a more regular smoker, brain changes occur. The brain tries to maintain a state of balance, known as ‘homeostasis’, so it compensates for using nicotine by desensitising the brain receptors that nicotine binds to, while possibly activating more of them. This keeps on going while we continue to smoke.

When we try to stop smoking, the adaption brought about by chronic nicotine use begins to unwind. As this occurs, it causes the experience of withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms occur early on in a quit smoking attempt, so this is the riskiest time.

Plus, here’s what makes quitting extra challenging:

Every time nicotine from smoking causes the ‘feel-good’ chemical dopamine to be released, your brain associates this with what you were doing and feeling when you were smoking. This association is what most people refer to as ‘habit’.

Let’s say you usually smoke while drinking coffee – when you quit, your brain will remind you to smoke when having a coffee, because it remembers the ‘feel-good’ reward triggered from nicotine through smoking.


Genetics also play a part in smoking dependence

For example, some people break down nicotine faster than others. This means they are prone to smoke more to get the same level of nicotine as people who break it down more slowly.

If you need to smoke more because you metabolise nicotine faster, you are then learning to associate more things in life with this extra smoking. These additional ‘habits’ may make it more difficult to quit.

This is why every smoker’s dependence and quit journey is different.


How soon does my body overcome dependence?

While you may experience nicotine withdrawals when you quit smoking, here’s the good news – withdrawal symptoms usually peak after 3-4 days, with most smokers finding they last no more than 10-14 days (this will vary for each person).

Think about it like this:

  • In just 2 weeks, your body will be free of many of the nicotine withdrawal symptoms. 
  • Once this occurs, your cigarette cravings will reduce
  • After that, living a smoke-free life will be much easier!

It is not usual for smokers to experience many nicotine withdrawal symptoms over an extended period of time.


Ready for more good news?

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can be minimised – and for some smokers, eliminated altogether – by using Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) or a prescribed quit smoking medication.

Next, find out more about nicotine withdrawal symptoms

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