Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals, nor are we presenting anything in this post as medical advice. This commentary is based on our own personal experiences, as well as commonly accepted truths about the nicotine withdrawal process. For clinical information, please seek the guidance of a qualified medical professional.
There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you’re at least mildly interested in quitting tobacco, and/or eliminating your dependence on nicotine. If that’s the case, good for you. We know it isn’t easy.
More than the taste, the sensation, or even the socialization that comes from smoking, nicotine withdrawal presents arguably the biggest challenge for those trying to quit.
We want to speak to you on a human level about what nicotine is, what to expect when stepping down, and the ways we’ve found to be the most successful for cutting the cord once and for all.
What exactly is nicotine?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: nicotine is not inherently dangerous. There have been no direct links from nicotine to cancer, or other serious diseases. In fact, there have even been studies linking mild nicotine intake to health benefits.
That said, nicotine has two major drawbacks. First, many users become dependent on it. Secondly, the majority of users are hooked through the form of tobacco cigarettes, which we know lead to cancer, heart disease, and myriad other serious health concerns. But in and of itself, nicotine isn’t necessarily the problem.
Nicotine is a naturally occurring alkaloid that comes from the nightshade family of plants, such as tobacco leaves, but also eggplants and peppers. It can also be synthetically produced.
Though it is most commonly ingested through inhalation of cigarettes or vaping products, it can also be absorbed through the skin or the mouth via mucous membranes, as in a patch or gum. It’s all the same nic. Yet no matter how nicotine is consumed, it enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. The reason scientists think that cigarette smoking is uniquely addictive is that the inahled smoke delivers the nicotine with a supercharged punch, which the brain craves again and again.
Once in the system, your brain wants it to stay. For many, the negative effects of tobacco are outweighed by the satisfaction of ingesting more nicotine.
What can I expect when quitting nicotine?
THe key is understanding what you can expect to possibly happen with nicotine withdrawal symptoms. The list of symptoms of nicotine withdrawal may seem long, but it’s all possible in those inital days of abstinenece:
- Digestive issues
- Erratic heart rate and blood pressure
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased hunger
- The urge to smoke
Sounds pleasant, no? For many people, it isn’t. But there is no guarantee that you will experience any of these symptoms. Depending on your own physiology, and the amount you consume each day, your withdrawal could be more or less difficult. Some people found it easier using some sort of distraction, like a fidget spinner for example.
Expect the unexpected, my friends. Most people experience some of these symptoms. Some people experience all of these symptoms. And a lucky few experience NONE of these symptoms.
A general timeline for nicotine withdrawal symptoms
Thankfully, the human body likes to be healthy, and has a pretty good recovery system in place. It also doesn’t like to waste time.
Generally speaking, you can expect the first signs of nicotine withdrawal almost immediately. You’ll know it because you’ve experienced it thousands of times before — it’s the urge to have more nicotine! You see, within 20-30 minutes after your last dose, your heart rate and blood pressure are already moving toward more normal levels.
But, like in so many occasions in our lives, our brains and hearts aren’t in sync when it comes to nicotine. While your heart is getting back to normal, your brain is steadily pushing your other senses toward feeding that craving once more. These initial pangs are often as hard as any of the symptoms people face, because feeding those desires feels so damn good when it finally happens.
This heart/brain disconnect could continue for the next few days, but no matter how long nicotine was part of your routine, it tends to dissipate relatively quickly. Just as quickly as you got hooked on nicotine, it similarly doesn’t take that long for the physical cravings to go away. The trick is fighting those persistent, increasingly intense urges along the way.
At this point, frustration and anxiety give way to anger and irritability. (You may also notice some dull, throbbing headaches, just to make the experience more memorable.)
Yeah, you’re still irritable. And you’re probably at your wit’s end trying to fight through nicotine cravings. At this point, your body is practically demanding to be fed more nicotine — the act of a desperate entity.
Why “desperate?” Because — though it varies from person to person — by the 72-hour mark, the last traces of nicotine have likely left your bloodstream. And when it’s gone, your brain is like a starving animal, making a last-ditch attempt to get what it needs before conceding the battle. This is a major hurdle to overcome.
So, the good news is that, at this point, nicotine is no longer present in the body. But the brain still hasn’t forgotten that it wants more of it. It’s time to begin facing the harsher realities of smoking and nicotine — it’s as much a habit as it is an addiction.
I use these terms separately because in my experience, the nicotine may have been an involuntary driver of the act of smoking cigarettes. But over time, the physical habit of lighting, inhaling, exhaling and repeating was as addictive (if not moreso) than anything the nicotine was doing to my body.
If this is the case, then it might be worthwhile to find a “replacement” activity, with similar repetitious actions, to stave off any lingering desire to obtain nicotine. Gums, candies, toothpicks, and even zero-nicotine vaping are all commonly used stand-ins to use.
If it helps, by week 2, you could also have plenty of cleansing coughing fits and mucus expelling from your body… you know, to keep your mind off of other things.
Weeks 3-4 and beyond:
Hallelujah, the worst is over! If you’ve made it this far without succumbing during a weak moment or two, the only thing preventing you from returning to nicotine is your own desire.
Yeah, it’s true. Despite shedding the physiological need for nicotine, your brain is a complex beast that remembers things. The smell of a lit cigarette, the momentary escape of a smoke break, or even the socialization that comes when all your friends head outside the bar together. Your brain remembers these things fondly, making it difficult to avoid those old cravings.
If you’re determined to live without nicotine, getting past withdrawal is the biggest hurdle. Avoiding momentary temptations is something you’ll have to navigate until they too fade away.