There are many different ways to improve your health. Changing your diet, exercising, and spending more time with friends and family are just three ways to improve health. But what if you could make just one change that would instantly offer health benefits? What if there was one simple change you could make that would offer improvements in not only your physical health but also your mental, social, and emotional health?

There is one simple change that you can make to transform your life: quitting smoking.

Along with obesity, smoking is one of the deadliest health problems you can face. Cigarettes are responsible for one in five deaths in the United States, and because it is an acquired behavior, it is entirely preventable. Smoking is the cause of 30% of all cancers, and it is the cause of 87% of lung cancer deaths for men (70% for women).

But cancer doesn’t account for even half of all smoking-related deaths. Smoking also causes death from heart disease, stroke, and brain aneurysms. Pregnant women who smoke are giving their child an increased risk of birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome. Secondhand smoke is deadly for everyone around the smoker and contributes to high rates of asthma in children and adults who live with a smoker.

Smoking shortens the lifespan of men by as much as 13.2 years and women by 14.5. If you smoke, your chance of death between the ages of 35 and 69 is greatly increased. The impact of the death of a parent or a spouse cannot be overestimated, emotionally, physically, and financially.

It seems like men in particular face a higher possibility of death due to smoking, in part because of the Y chromosome. Researchers at Uppsala University found a link between the loss of the Y chromosome in the blood of male smokers and higher mortality rates. Lars Forsberg, researcher at the Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology at Uppsala University found that:

“Out of a large number of factors that were studied, such as age, blood pressure, diabetes, alcohol intake and smoking, we found that loss of the Y chromosome in a fraction of the blood cells was more common in smokers than in non-smokers.”

This loss of the Y chromosome was “dose dependent”; that is, heavy smokers showed more of a loss that lighter smokers. This loss appeared reversible. Men who quit smoking eventually had the same level of Y chromosome loss in their blood as men who had ever smoked.

So what happens to your body when you quit smoking?

  • Within 20 minutes of your last cigarette: Your heart rate slows
  • Within one hour: Carbon monoxide, a toxic gas that is a by-product of smoking, drops to normal levels in your blood
  • Within two weeks to three months: Your risk of heart attack begins to drop
  • Within nine months: Your lungs begin to function properly, reducing the chance of lung infections and illness
  • Within one year: Your risk of heart disease plunges to just half that of a smoker’s
  • Within five years: Your risk of stroke is the same as a person who has never smoked
  • Within ten years: Your risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney, and pancreas decreases dramatically, and your chance of dying from lung cancer is half that of a smoker’s
  • Within 15 years: Your risk of heart disease is the same as that of a non-smoker

In addition, quitting smoking improves your sense of taste and smell, and it helps the smell of others around you. No longer will they be inhaling the scent of stale cigarette smoke in your hair, clothes, house, and vehicle. Your skin will improve as blood begins to flow more freely through your body, and your appearance in general will improve.

The benefits of quitting extend to mood and temperament as well. When a smoker lights up for the first time, they may notice a boost in their mood and a “light” feeling. Over time, as nicotine dependence becomes firmly rooted, the brain structures change substantially so that smokers experience withdrawal symptoms between cigarettes. They may feel anxiety and irritation. Quitting smoking breaks this cycle of dependence and contributes to a more even mood. For those who believe that smoking helps to combat stress, depression, and anxiety it is important to understand that the nicotine is just smoothing away the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, not dealing with the underlying issues of depression, anxiety, or stress.

Deciding to quit is the first step. Now you need a plan.

Pay yourself

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) found that offering low-income smokers a small economic incentive to quit doubled their rate of smoking cessation. These smokers were able to maintain that cessation at twice the rate of smokers who were not paid. You may not be part of a study that pays you to quit, but you can still get paid. Every time you would normally buy a pack of cigarettes, deposit that money in a jar. At the end of each week (or month) treat yourself to something you love with the money you would have spent on cigarettes.

Get support

Quitting smoking is especially difficult if your social life revolves around smoking. Smokers who work in bars or who are heavy drinkers have more difficulty quitting than those who do not frequent bars, but there is hope. The Yale Cancer Center and Yale School of Medicine found that heavy drinkers had a significantly better chance of quitting when they received tobacco-focused telephone counseling. Counseling and support—in person, online, or by phone—has been linked to high rates of cessation success for all types of smokers.

Start something new

Smoking takes a lot of time, and when you stop the last thing you want to do is fill the void with another bad habit. Many people quitting smoking experience weight gain because they replace smoking with eating. Instead of changing one bad habit for another, start something new.

Every time you want to smoke, drink a glass of water and go for a walk. Or do 25 jumping jacks. Or start a knitting habit. Whatever it takes to keep your hands occupied when you would normally be smoking. Exercise is particularly effective, as it helps to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. If you suffer from any of those conditions and have been using smoking as a way to cope, it is particularly important that you replace the negative behavior of smoking with something positive and productive.

What you do not want to do is try to find a “safe” cigarette. The makers of e-cigarettes have attempted to market their product as a safe alternative to smoking, and it’s working for young smokers. While the water vapor exhaled while “vaping” is safer for those around the smoker, there are no studies on the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes. The United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA) has declared the products used in e-cigarettes safe to eat, but inhaling isn’t eating, and the delicate structures of the lungs are quite different from the lining of the stomach. Manufacturers of e-cigarettes are not required to list their ingredients, so smokers don’t know what they are ingesting. There is no such thing as a “safe” cigarette. The best thing to do is quit any form of tobacco product altogether.

What is your plan to quit smoking in 2015?

Image by wlodi via Flickr


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