Nicotine is a highly potent stimulant drug that is commonly absorbed when people use various types of tobacco products. Popular tobacco products include both cigarettes and (smokeless) chewing tobacco. Nicotine itself is a nicotonic acetylcholine receptor agonist and acts as a stimulant in mammals at low doses. Most people hypothesize that the “stimulant” effect is what causes most individuals to become addicted to the substance.
It essentially stimulates the reward pathways in the brain and causes people to associate smoking and/or using other tobacco products with pleasure. Even various products with nicotine that are used to help people quit smoking such as patches, gum, inhalants, and vaporizers can be addictive. It is the nicotine itself that is regarded as having the highest level of psychological addiction out of any stimulant according to the American Heart Association.
Due to the highly addictive nature of nicotine, it is no surprise that individuals experience both physical and psychological symptoms upon withdrawal. Many have regarded the act of quitting nicotine as being just as difficult as quitting hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. For most people, the withdrawal symptoms are very difficult to cope with.
Factors that influence nicotine withdrawal
There are many different factors that play a role in the nicotine withdrawal process. The amount of time you used nicotine, the frequency (rate) at which you used it, your social support, knowledge, and intrinsic motivation are all going to play a role in determining how successful your withdrawal goes. Be sure to keep these factors in mind as you attempt to quit.
1. Time Span
How long were you a smoker? In general, the longer you have smoked, the greater the potential you have for being addicted to nicotine. Someone who smoked just a couple times should theoretically have an easier time quitting than someone who has been smoking for years. Each time you smoke, your brain associates an experience with smoking.
The more experiences you have smoking and the more your brain’s reward center is stimulated by the nicotine, the tougher it will be for you to quit. Additionally, if you were smoking as a means to cope with an underlying psychological issue such as: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, etc. – it is going to be much more difficult to quit because you have come to associate nicotine use as the acceptable way to cope.
2. Frequency of usage
How often did you use nicotine products? Did you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day? Did you use chewing tobacco multiple times a day? Although the time span over which you used nicotine influences withdrawal, so does the frequency of usage.
If you smoked cigarettes 5 times per day, you are likely going to have a much more difficult time quitting than someone who smoked just once every other day. Individuals that use nicotine at a higher frequency are also going to have a more extensive “weaning” process.
Despite the fact that nicotine is highly addictive, some people have an easier time quitting than others. The drug affects humans the same, but does not affect each person to the same degree. One person may have a slightly different physiological response than another.
Some people may smoke in order to cope with underlying stress and/or anxiety. Others may have smoked just for social enjoyment. Individuals with addictive personalities are going to have a more difficult time quitting than someone with non-addictive traits.
Do you have good social support? Are you surrounding yourself with people that engage in healthy habits? For some people, support can come in the form of therapy, for others all it takes is a couple encouraging family members or friends.
In general, the more support you have the easier it is going to be to quit. People that support your decision to stop smoking and/or stop using tobacco products are going to help you make the right choices and guide you in the right direction.
Do you know what quitting means? Do you know how to avoid triggers? Have you planned your life around non-tobacco activities? Many people lack knowledge when they first try to quit and the whole attempt backfires. They have social contacts that they smoke with call them up to hang out, and before they know it, they are smoking again.
Or other people that try to quit and don’t expect such profound withdrawal symptoms. Without adequate knowledge of how to avoid triggers and prevent relapse a person has a significantly greater chance of relapsing into nicotine usage. Have you planned what to do if you feel the urge to use nicotine again? These are all things to consider that most people don’t know how to deal with.
6. Cold turkey vs. weaning (slow taper)
Most evidence suggests that “weaning” off of nicotine is more effective than quitting cold turkey. Although this doesn’t mean quitting “cold turkey” is impossible, the statistics indicate that the success rate is significantly lower than a gradual taper.
The idea behind a slow taper is to gradually reduce consumption of nicotine and eventually use “nicotine replacement” as opposed to a tobacco product. Once you have gradually reduced consumption of the nicotine replacement product, you finally “quit” and never look back. The tapering process may take awhile, but it is regarded as the more statistically effective process.
7. Motivation + Purpose
How motivated are you to kick the nicotine habit? Many people attempt to quit, but they really don’t want to quit “that bad.” Do you even know why you want to quit? Is it because you know someone that died of lung cancer? Is it because you don’t want your kids to pick up a smoking habit? Is it so that you can increase the likelihood of living a longer, healthier life?
Before you quit, it is important to either be highly motivated, and/or have a purpose (powerful reason explaining why quitting is necessary). If you are highly motivated and driven with purpose, you may be successful in quitting on your first try. If you have zero motivation and can’t seem to find a reason to quit, you may remain “stuck” and the process is going to seem much more difficult than it should.
Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms: List of Possibilities
You may notice symptoms of withdrawal from nicotine just a few hours after you were last exposed to it. Without it, you may start to develop cravings and in order to satisfy these cravings, your brain will urge you to use more nicotine. When you start to withdraw, you may notice any of the following symptoms listed below.
Everyone has a different experience when it comes to withdrawal. Some individuals may have a tougher time coming off of nicotine, while others are successful quitting “cold turkey” on their first attempt. It is important to be knowledgeable of any symptoms that you may experience so that you can recognize that they are completely normal and that you aren’t going insane.
It is advised to let the symptoms run their course and eventually you will fully recover. Nicotine is typically eradicated from the body within three days of quitting, but the psychological withdrawal symptoms may last for an extended period of time.
- Anger: It has been found that nicotine can help individuals cope with negative emotions. In many cases, people turn to using products that contain nicotine to help them deal with anger-provoking situations. It is no wonder that when the person stops using nicotine, they can get very angry. This is because they no longer have their nicotine to lean on to help them deal with a difficult situation.
- Anxiety: Many people that quit nicotine feel extremely anxious, to the point that they feel as though they might have an anxiety disorder. This intense anxiety has to do with the fact that while you smoked or used tobacco products, they elicited a calming response in your brain. Since you no longer have that “calm response” being generated, you may feel intense anxiety or nervousness as part of withdrawal.
- Blood pressure changes: Since smoking causes your blood pressure to increase, it is common to experience a temporary dip in blood pressure as your body recalibrates itself to normal. This should fix itself relatively quick.
- Chest tightness: Most people experience temporary chest tightness for the first few days of withdrawal. It should be noted that this typically does not last for more than a week. It is thought that relaxation techniques can help with this pain.
- Concentration problems: It has been noted that nicotine actually improves cognition. This is because it acts in part as a stimulant. When people quit nicotine, they may experience problems with concentration and “foggy thinking.” This is a result of decreases in dopamine as well as a lack of stimulation. Other people may experience confusion and/or memory problems, but these are less common.
- Constipation: Roughly one out of every six individuals that are withdrawing from nicotine experience constipation. Since nicotine stimulates bowel activity, you may experience the opposite when quitting the substance.
- Cravings: These may be intense for nicotine or tobacco products during your withdrawal. For most people the cravings tend to get easier as each day passes. It is common to experience cravings even after three months. Usually the first 90 days are the most difficult to deal with the cravings, and things get easier beyond the 90 day marker.
- Depression: Individuals that use nicotine products may experience an antidepressant effect as a result of the stimulating properties. Depression is a very common withdrawal symptom to experience over the course of the short and long term. During the short term (days), depression may feel like grief, and over a longer term (weeks) your outlook may be pretty pessimistic.
- Diarrhea: Some people have extremely bad gas as well as diarrhea when they quit nicotine. The gas may cause burps, farts, and obviously a lot of uncomfortable bowel movements. It is recommended that if you are dealing with diarrhea as a withdrawal symptom, that you pick up Imodium (an over the counter medication) to help.
- Drowsiness: When you quit using nicotine, you may notice that you feel excessively drowsy throughout the day. This is especially common in the early stages of withdrawal. Your body is trying to get used to functioning without the stimulant. Other related symptoms that you may experience include lethargy, tiredness, and excessive sleepiness.
- Fatigue: This goes hand in hand with the drowsiness that you may experience. You may have no energy and feel exhausted all day. Your energy levels will eventually return to normal as you continue through the withdrawal process.
- Headaches: Some people experience minor headaches, while others feel as if they are experiencing a full blown migraine. Take the time to relax and make sure you have some over the counter headache relief if they become difficult to deal with.
- Heart rate changes: When you stop using nicotine, there is evidence that your heart rate will change. When you use nicotine-based products, your heart rate increases. When you withdraw from these products, your heart rate may experience a temporary drop.
- Increased appetite: Nicotine is a well known appetite suppressant. Many people claim that they started smoking and lost a lot of weight – this is true for many. However, when withdrawing from nicotine, many individuals experience significant increases in appetite. They may actually experience food cravings and really want to eat.
- Insomnia: For certain individuals the process of withdrawing from nicotine is so stressful, that they cannot sleep at night. They may have extreme insomnia and really bad cravings for nicotine, especially during the early stages of withdrawal.
- Irritability: When you begin withdrawing from nicotine, you may notice that you become very irritable. It is common to feel frustrated and hot tempered during your withdrawal process. Little things may easily annoy you – just realize that this is part of the process.
- Loneliness: This is usually a result of the fact that an individual is now not using tobacco products with social contacts. The individual has to now find other, new social outlets so that they don’t feel as lonely. The loneliness may be overwhelming, especially early on in the withdrawal process, but it will improve over time.
- Nausea: Everything may evoke feelings of nausea – and it may feel as though you have flu-like symptoms for your first few days. Recognize that the nausea is your body’s way of attempting to readjust itself to life without the drug.
- Restlessness: Some people become very restless and experience “impatience.” This is because they don’t have their “fix” to help calm down the brain. They don’t know how to psychologically or physically cope without the drug. The restlessness may be so extreme that the person seems to find things to do just to take his or her mind off of the nicotine.
- Sore throat: Some people experience a slightly sore throat when they withdraw from nicotine – especially if they are smokers. This is merely a physical symptom that goes away over the first week or so during withdrawal.
- Stomach pain: Many individuals experience abdominal pain and/or pain in the stomach area when they first quit. This shouldn’t last longer than a week.
- Sweating: It is common for the body to sweat more than average during withdrawal. You may notice heavy night sweats and even sweats during the day. For some individuals, this is their body’s natural way of detoxifying.
- Tension: The entire body may feel “tense” and overly stressed. This tension is somewhat normal and will subside within the first week or so of withdrawal. Try to make sure that you do something relaxing – it will help with the tension.
- Time perception changes: During early stages of withdrawal, many individuals have experienced distortions in time perception. Time may seem as though it is passing at an extremely slow rate during the early stages of withdrawal. One craving may feel as though it lasts hours even though it only lasted a few minutes. This will improve as time continues to pass.
- Tingling in hands/feet: You may notice that when you stop using nicotine that your hands and/or feet start to tingle. This is a normal withdrawal symptom that many people experience.
- Vomiting: In some extreme cases, a person may actually vomit as a result of the nausea that they experience during withdrawal. In general, the vomiting is likely not going to last more than a few days. This may be uncomfortable to deal with, but a necessary part of the process.
- Weight gain: People gain weight as a result of increased appetite associated with nicotine withdrawal. When individuals are on nicotine, it acts as a stimulant and therefore typically decreases a person’s appetite. When they withdraw, their full appetite comes back and they may gain weight. The minor weight gain is not usually a major concern – things will eventually stabilize.
Note: It is known that Nicotine stays in your system for less than 24 hours after your final ingestion. However, its active metabolite “cotinine” lingers for longer duration (over 3 days). Most symptoms will emerge once the drug (and its metabolites) have been fully cleared from your body.
Nicotine Withdrawal Timeline: How long will it last?
There is no set timeline for withdrawal from nicotine that applies to everyone. Some individuals withdraw quicker from nicotine than others. Additionally, everyone has a different perspective as to what “withdrawal” means. For some people they are looking to simply overcome some of the physical and mental symptoms associated with the withdrawal process. The physical symptoms of withdrawal may only last a few weeks, but the psychological symptoms may last for months, a year, or multiple years.
For other individuals, they want to make it to a point where they no longer even crave any source of nicotine. Most research shows that nicotine is among the most addictive substances for humans. It activates the “reward system” of the brain and stimulates feelings of euphoria and pleasure. When using substances that contain nicotine, it has been found that it increases levels of dopamine and creates a very intense addiction.
During the withdrawal process, dopamine production decreases and sensitivity of acetylcholine receptors also decreases. It is this combination that makes the process very difficult to cope with. It is believed that other neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine are involved in withdrawal as well. This makes it very difficult for an individual to cope with the heightened sensitivity of their reward pathway in the brain, and most individuals end up using nicotine again at some point in the future.
The effects on your brain will last for months after the last time you used nicotine. This makes it extremely difficult for people to stop smoking and/or using tobacco. However, many people have successfully kicked their nicotine addiction. If you’d like more information, read the article “How to Quit Smoking Cigarettes” – it will help you address and understand the process. Even if you use smokeless tobacco, I highly recommend reading the same article.
In the end, quitting is mind over matter. It helps if you take the time to get adequate exercise, avoid triggers, socialize, eat healthy, and stay busy. As time passes, the process of quitting will get easier. Even if you are unable to fully withdraw from nicotine upon your first attempt, give it another shot. Most people that end up successfully quitting have tried to kick the habit multiple times.