When it comes to quitting smoking, we know that the benefits outweigh the cons. However, if you’ve attempted to quit in the past, you’ll know that withdrawal symptoms can be overwhelming enough to lead to a relapse. While they’re uncomfortable and unpleasant, these symptoms cannot hurt you. You can get through to the other side with the right treatment plan, a strong support network, and persistence. Below, we explain why you might feel worse after quitting smoking, as well as what you can do to alleviate some of these side effects.
Why Do I Feel Sick After Quitting Smoking?
When you quit smoking, your body enters a state Insomnia Or Fatigue of withdrawal. Over time, your body has become used to receiving hits of nicotine regularly throughout the day. Take a moment to consider: how do I usually feel in between cigarettes? Your answer is likely to include words like restless, anxious, and irritable.
These symptoms in between each cigarette are actually signs of nicotine withdrawal. They’re also the reason you’ll then reach for your next cigarette. So, you’ve had a cigarette a few hours ago. You start to feel a bit jittery and begin craving a cigarette, so you reach for another. Those uncomfortable symptoms start to fade as you smoke, and you feel settled again. Then, the cycle repeats. This is basically nicotine addiction in action, and it’s these very symptoms that make quitting is so challenging.
Nicotine Withdrawal Timeline
Nicotine withdrawal will begin 2-3 hours after your last cigarette. Withdrawal symptoms are usually strongest 1-4 days after quitting and can last for 2-4 weeks, reducing in intensity during this period. After about a month, the withdrawal symptoms will dissipate completely for most people. It should be noted that while physical withdrawal symptoms will resolve for most people at this point, psychological symptoms may continue.
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Some people experience mild withdrawal symptoms while others may experience more intense sensations. Generally, people quitting cold turkey will experience worse withdrawal symptoms than those with a dedicated treatment plan that combines counseling, behavioural therapy, and Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT).
How Long Does Nicotine Stay In Your System?
Once nicotine enters the bloodstream, it is broken down by enzymes in the liver to form cotinine. The amount of nicotine in the bloodstream rises when you’re smoking and immediately after you’ve smoked a cigarette. The nicotine levels in your blood will depend on how much nicotine you inhale, as well as how much nicotine is in the cigarette. Your genetic makeup will also determine how much nicotine is absorbed into your bloodstream.
Generally, nicotine can usually be detected in the blood for 1-3 days after your last cigarette. Cotinine can be found in the blood for up to 10 days. Both nicotine and cotinine can take up to 4 days to be cleared from your saliva, and cotinine may be detected in the urine for anywhere between 4 days and 3 weeks after your last cigarette, depending on how much nicotine you have been exposed to.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms From Quitting Smoking
Depending on your level of nicotine dependency, you may experience one or more of the following physical withdrawal symptoms.
Insomnia Or Fatigue
Withdrawal from nicotine can cause sleep disturbances. You may find yourself tossing and turning more than usual, or on the other hand, you may feel more lethargic and tired than normal. Both symptoms are common and will reduce over time.
Restlessness Or Struggling To Focus
Feeling restless, jumpy, and a bit foggy after quitting smoking is common. Your body has become accustomed to receiving a hit of nicotine in order to relax and centre you. It’ll take some time for your body and mind to bounce back, but within a few weeks, these symptoms will resolve.
While it’s a less common symptom, some people experience constipation after quitting smoking. This is because nicotine increases the rate of digestion, so once you stop smoking, your digestive system will slow back down again. Most people only experience bouts of constipation over 1-2 weeks, after which symptoms resolve.
Increased Appetite (Does Smoking Cessation Cause Weight Gain?)
Weight gain after quitting smoking is very common. This happens for three key reasons:
- Nicotine speeds up your metabolism – when you smoke, the number of calories burned at rest increases by 7-15%, as reported by the National Library of Medicine. Once you stop smoking, you may find you burn through calories slower.
- Cigarettes suppress your appetite – nicotine activates a pathway in the brain that suppresses appetite, which can lead to weight loss. When you quit smoking, you will likely feel hungrier.
- You may replace smoking with food – smoking is a habit, and in order to combat withdrawal symptoms, you may look to food as a distraction or to mimic the hand-to-mouth ritual of smoking. This is completely normal and common. You may also find that food tastes better after you quit, so your appetite may increase as you begin to enjoy your food more.
These changes to your appetite are common and normal. In most cases, provided you’re sticking to a balanced diet and are exercising regularly, weight gain is a sign that your body is returning to health.
Emotional Withdrawal Symptoms From Quitting Smoking
In addition to physical symptoms, withdrawal can cause some psychological symptoms.
Nicotine is an addictive substance that promotes the release of dopamine in the brain, which is the chemical responsible for pleasure. When you quit smoking, your brain registers that it’s no longer receiving dopamine and will signal to you that it wants more. This results in cravings.
As with all withdrawal symptoms, cravings will be strongest in the first few days after quitting. Cravings usually come in waves and last about 10 to 20 minutes before passing. Cravings will decrease in intensity and frequency over a 2-4 week period before disappearing entirely.
Feeling Angry And Frustrated
Research has shown that when quitting smoking, it’s common to feel angry, irritable, and frustrated. You may feel as though you have a short fuse, or that things bother you more easily than they did when you were smoking. These feelings, as with the physical withdrawal symptoms, will reduce in severity over a short period of time as your brain adjusts.
Feeling Anxious Or Depressed
Some people experience depression or anxiety after quitting smoking. This is particularly common in people who have suffered from mental illness previously. For many people, smoking is used as a coping mechanism for anxiety. However, smoking only momentarily alleviates the discomfort that comes with nicotine withdrawal. Many people confuse this as an antidote for anxiety, but smoking doesn’t actually address any underlying anxiety issues that may be present. If you are experiencing mental health difficulties while quitting smoking, it’s important to discuss this with a GP who can recommend counselling and behavioural therapy to help you on your journey.
What Happens When You Quit Smoking?
While withdrawal symptoms can feel overwhelming and the desire to smoke again is likely to be strong in the initial days and weeks, it’s important to remember the benefits of quitting. Below, we take a look at a timeline of what happens when you quit smoking:
Within 20 Minutes
Your blood pressure and pulse return to healthy, normal levels. The fibers that help to keep bacteria out of your lungs will start to move again after being restricted due to smoking.
The carbon monoxide levels in your body will return to normal. This will help promote blood flow and tissue recovery.
The oxygen in the body increases and the veins and arteries expand back to healthy levels. These changes are vital to prevent heart disease.
The damaged nerve endings in your body start to regenerate.
You will be able to breathe more easily as your lung capacity increases.
Your sense of taste and smell improves. If you have managed to get to the one-week mark, you’re now 9 times more likely to cease smoking completely.
2 Weeks To 3 Months
You’ll be able to move and breathe more easily as circulation and oxygenation improve.
1 Month To 9 Months
Your skin appearance will improve, and you will feel more energized. At this point, any remaining breathing difficulties are likely to improve significantly.
You’ll be much better at handling stress without smoking. At this point, you’ve likely handled a few stressful situations smoke-free, which will give you the confidence to handle any other difficult scenarios in the future.
Your risk of heart disease is now half of what it was when you were smoking.
After 5 smoke-free years, your stroke risk is the same as the risk for non-smokers.
Your lung cancer risk is now half of what it was when you smoked.
Your heart disease risk is now the same as the risk for non-smokers.
How To Cope With Withdrawal
There are a number of ways you can cope with nicotine withdrawal. Here are a few strategies to consider:
Whether you seek support from friends and family or a health care professional (ideally, seek the support of both), it’s important to have people around you who are aware that you’re quitting and can help to encourage you along the way. Your support network can also help when cravings come along by distracting you. It’s a good idea to get in touch with your GP to discuss the option of seeing a counsellor. These specialists will be trained in helping you through any psychological discomfort you may experience while quitting.
Find A Distraction And Set Up A Routine
Take note of when you would usually smoke, and prepare distractions for those times. You might want to make a coffee, drink a glass of water, chew on a piece of gum, or call a friend when you anticipate a craving coming on. It can be helpful to write up a daily routine in anticipation of those moments you’d normally have a cigarette. For example, you might write, ‘after breakfast, have a cup of tea’, then ‘at lunch, go for a walk with a friend.’
Move Your Body
During the day, get some exercise in. Even a light walk will release endorphins to boost your mood, as well as tire out your body to help you settle into sleep.
Implement Calming Activities
To help you cope with any restlessness or anxiety, you can implement a few relaxing activities throughout your day. You might want to try meditating for 3-5 minutes every night or reading before bed. You might prefer to journal and write out everything you’re feeling, including reminders for why you’re quitting. These can help keep you motivated and on track. For a list of
Try to cut your caffeine intake down by 50%, if possible. Caffeine is metabolized more quickly in smokers, so you may have needed more caffeine during your time smoking. Once you’ve quit, it’s important to cut down again to prevent over-stimulation which can result in increased restlessness, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia.
Take Care To Sleep Well
If you’re experiencing fatigue after quitting smoking, let your body rest. Try to get in as many hours as you can by going to bed earlier, and perhaps taking a nap where you can. Your energy will return once your body adjusts to no longer receiving nicotine.
If you’re struggling with insomnia, a calming nighttime routine will signal to your body that it’s time for rest. Switch off devices at least an hour before bed, then you might like to take a warm shower, drink a decaf tea, and do some reading, journaling, or gentle meditation. Ensure your bedroom is dark and set to a comfortable temperature.
Consider Nicotine Replacement Therapies
If quitting cold turkey has proved unsuccessful, it’s a good idea to consider nicotine replacement therapies. They are extremely effective in helping people abstain from smoking long-term, particularly when used in conjunction with behavioral therapy. For more information on Nicotine Replacement Therapies, head to our dedicated guide here.
For more strategies to help you quit smoking, visit this article.
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