Up in Smoke: How Smoking Affects Your BrainThe title makes me think of the Cheech and Chong movie (remember them?) and giggle a little bit.  Although, I find nothing humorous about smoking these days.  I’m one of those obnoxious ex-smokers who can’t stand to be around smoke and is terribly insulted that anyone dares to pollute MY air.

I spent a lot of time going in and out of a public building last week, and I literally ran and held my breath going through the clouds of smoke put off by the people huddled around the entrance with their cigarettes.  I am in no way criticizing or judging them and I actually empathize with them understanding the death grip (literally) cigarettes have on a person.

My Brain in a Cloud of Smoke

Growing up in North Carolina, smoking was not uncommon, especially back then.  My first cigarette was with some other teenage girls in a barn with horses and lots of hay. Smart, huh?  I smoked socially through college and as a young adult, but smoking did not go with my persona in my public, adult life.  So, I became a closet smoker on my down time and if I was drinking socially, I had a cigarette in my hand.

Quitting for both of my pregnancies, I found it fairly easy to stop for someone else’s health. I had been trying to quit for years and pretended to quit in the couple of years before I actually did manage to stop for good. These days, there are various electronic cigarettes available which can help a person taper down and quit. I didn’t want to smoke.  I knew better and wanted better for myself, but wanting and doing were worlds apart — which only led to binge smoking.  Think chimney.  Once I started, I smoked the whole pack.

Giving in and buying a pack, I would tell myself I was only going to smoke one.  I would, and run water over the rest.  I became an expert at drying out the soggy cigarettes in the microwave and on the toaster. When in the hospital for two weeks after trying to commit suicide,  I finally quit  because I couldn’t light up in there.

How Smoking Damages Your Brain

We all pretty much know by now that smoking is damaging for the lungs and heart, but did you know it is bad for the brain also?

Smoking significantly increases the risk of developing alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and other dementias. In one study, it was found that heavy smoking in mid-life may increase the risk of these as much as 100 percent.  While not clearly determined yet, it’s thought that the connection is vascular in origin and the result of damage to the small blood vessels of the brain.

Many studies have shown that “tobacco smoking is associated with large-scale and wide-spread structural brain abnormalities.”  Smoking thins the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with impulse control, reward processing and decision making.  In addition to the large dopamine release you get from smoking, these physical changes might also explain the addictiveness of the habit.

For me, I think, smoking was a manifestation of my feelings towards myself.  I didn’t value myself or treat myself with respect or kindness.  Now, I find it hard to believe I ever did it.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilmoralee/

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  1. Thanks Debbie for another plain-speaking post. My country of residence, Scotland, out-lawed smoking in public places a few years ago. It has made a difference but we also suffer from the smokers’ gauntlet at entranceways. I had one puff when I was younger and never really took to smoking. I count that amongst my blessings every day. You take care, now, Stephen.

  2. Debbie,

    This makes me so happy that I’m no longer a smoker! I agree – I could never imagine smoking again. I’m glad you no longer smoke as well. I’m sure the former habit is one factor in my health challenges, but I pray there is no serious damage. Thank you for spreading the word about these health dangers and the impact on the brain.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sandra, good for you for quitting. Seems like I was in good company! At least we grew and stopped, thank goodness. I do think it is a process of evolving in your relationship with yourself. I do not think I have any health challenges from it…not that I know of yet anyway. I was just vain enough that I exercised the whole time ironically. In this case, my vanity may have served me well inadvertently.

      There was this traveling museum exhibit (I am sorry, I forget which one) of the human body, and it showed the actual preserved lungs of smokers. Shocked me into wanting to quit those last couple of years. It was just sad. Black. Supposedly in around 8 years or so, your lung tissue replaces itself. Four more to go.

  3. Never was a smoker myself as I was a severe asthmatic growing up and had enough lung problems but I grew up around many family and friend smokers. To this day I get headaches if I am around a lot of smoke. I am always grateful that I never had the opportunity to pick up the habit.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Having asthma may have actually been a benefit here because it steered you clear of some harmful things. You have shared that you have realized this in other ways also. Funny how that works. We just have to trust as it only becomes evident in retrospect, huh?

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  5. Hi Debbie
    I was a closet smoker as well and when I was 27 one of my four daughters said, “I smell something in there.” I was in the bathroom smoking!

    That night I was freakin’ out and my hubs said you have to choices come out of the closet or quit. I didn’t want my kids to smoke so I quit. I replaced it with running which saved my sanity and I quit eating red meat cuz it was heavy in my stomach due to running after dinner so hubs could watch the kids.
    I had a bone scan 2 years ago and the doc said I have the hips of a 30 year old. Yipppeee!
    I also have learned to say a little prayer for others when I see them smoke. My compassion comes from knowing what it feels like to think you need too. Great article.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Isn’t it telling how we would both quit for our children? Good for you! I feel so much better mentally as it is nice to have my behavior in alignment with the intellect and beliefs. The contradiction here used to cause me much internal struggle and grief. I feel so much better physically too. No migraines, no sinus troubles, no colds even…from this and a much healthier lifestyle all around. Plus, as you point out, there is the added benefit of modeling to our children how to love oneself.

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