Depression

Why Smoking Might Be Making Your Depression Even Worse

June 19, 2020

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There is a well-established link between smoking and depression that has long been of interest for mental health research. Because of the neural mechanisms by which smoking cigarettes has its effect on the body, nicotine works to deliver a “mood boost.” As a consequence, many users believe that because nicotine impacts the pleasure centers of the brain, it could potentially be a solution to relieving symptoms of depression. However, this is unfortunately not true. Aside from their extremely high addiction potential, cigarettes may actually worsen your depression for a variety of reasons. 

Why Does Smoking Make Me Feel Better?

How nicotine acts on pleasure centers in the brain

Many people who consistently smoke acknowledge how it boosts their mood and makes them feel better. This effect is due to one of the main components of cigarettes as well as the e-liquid found in e-cigarettes or vapes: nicotine. Nicotine binds to receptors in the brain and various parts of the body including the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal system. 

By acting on these specific receptors in the brain, nicotine increases the release of dopamine (a chemical that makes us feel happy) in the parts of our brain associated with experiencing pleasure. Because of this effect however, it also results in a reinforcing effect that leads to nicotine addiction. This is why when users start to feel down or stressed out, they administer nicotine via smoking in order to feel better. 

A handful of cigarettes sit on a table.
Nicotine, a major component of cigarettes and e-cigarettes, is the chemical responsible for the effect that smoking has to temporarily make you feel better. It acts on the centers in your brain that create feelings of pleasure, but it also has an effect on the parts of your brain associated with reward and reinforcement, leading to addiction. 

Does Smoking Help My Depression?

Smoking might actually be making your depression worse 

Existing research shows that people who smoke are twice as likely to experience depression compared to those who do not smoke. In fact, studies have shown that smoking might even be a predisposing factor to depression. Indeed, it has been observed that those who do not smoke generally have a better quality of life, as well as better mental health. More specifically, non-smokers have significantly less instances of depression and anxiety. What is also interesting is that according to the CDC, aside from higher smoking rates in the depressed population, depressed individuals are also less likely to quit smoking. 

As previously explained, smoking stimulates the release of a chemical called dopamine, triggering pleasurable effects. It is generally true that if you are depressed, your natural levels of dopamine in your body are likely lower relative to non-depressed individuals. This is why it might seem like a reasonable solution to utilize cigarettes to temporarily boost your supply of dopamine. 

However, when you consistently smoke, you actually encourage your brain to downregulate your dopamine production. In other words, you basically tell your brain to start making less dopamine because you are supplying it instead through smoking nicotine. Having even lower levels of dopamine in the body can ultimately result in feeling even more depressed, since there is less of it to promote positive effects. This process also leads to addiction, since it encourages you to smoke even more to restore those levels of dopamine in order to feel better again. 

A woman sits with her hands over her face, appearing to be depressed and frustrated.
Smoking may temporarily make you feel better, but due to its neural mechanisms, it actually promotes decreased happiness in the long-run. Because nicotine results in an increase in the chemical dopamine, your body learns to make less of it on its own. With lower levels of dopamine, your depression symptoms will likely feel even more pronounced. 

What Can I Do Instead of Smoking to Treat My Depression Symptoms?

There are plenty of ways other than smoking that may help you feel better 

It is first important to note that quitting smoke itself could have many benefits on your overall well-being. Aside from the impact on your physical health, cessation of smoking can actually alleviate your levels of anxiety, and ultimately promote better mental health. If you are a consistent smoker, your first step should definitely be to consider the benefits quitting might have for you. 

When considering some alternative ways to treat the symptoms associated with your depression, there are a variety of routes that you can take. Certainly, you’ll want to reflect on which strategies will best fit your particular lifestyle. Here are a few simple lifestyle changes you can start to make to alleviate some of your symptoms:

  • Eating healthier. A cleaner and more nutritious diet is always a good way to start when it comes to promoting a healthier lifestyle in general. Eating well-balanced meals can help keep your energy more consistent throughout the day, and also prevent mood swings or energy crashes related to foods with high sugar content. 
  • Exercising. When we engage in physical activity, we boost the chemicals in our brain (i.e. serotonin) that promote feelings of happiness and positivity. Even a temporary boost can make a significant difference, and getting in a routine can have an even more profound effect on your mental health. Try introducing some exercises, even if it is something as simple as walking, to your weekly routine in order to start promoting more consistent physical activity in your life. 
  • A better sleep schedule. When we’re sleep deprived, there are many negative effects that it can have on our well-being. Not only are we more irritable and fatigued, but our mental clarity and control over our emotions tends to suffer too. Getting in a more consistent routine and allowing yourself to get enough sleep is crucial to maintaining your mental health. 
  • Reducing your stress. It seems pretty obvious, but a lot of us deal with various stressors in our lives that tend to exacerbate our depression, and it isn’t so easy to put a stop to them all. However, finding ways to manage your stress is certainly important to reducing the symptoms associated with your depression. Though you might not be able to get rid of every single thing in your life that is a source of your stress, learning how to reduce the levels of stress that accompany them or even resolving some of these issues can greatly affect your depression as well.

After you’ve attempted to make some various changes to your lifestyle to promote better mental health, you might still find yourself suffering from depression and the many symptoms that accompany it. If this is the case, consider some of these other treatment options rather than relying on smoking to help with your symptoms:

  • Finding a support network. Whether it be a friend, family member, partner, or even just a mentor or someone you look up to, having people to turn to when you are experiencing depression can be helpful. Sometimes relying on others isn’t always for everyone, and that’s okay too. If you’re willing to open up to some supportive people in your life, this might be one way that you can start to feel a bit better. 
  • Medication. Though relying purely on medication may not be the best option for you, antidepressants are definitely a useful tool, especially when combined with other therapeutic techniques. These medications work to promote more effective levels of the chemicals in your brain involved in mood regulation. 
  • Counseling or Therapy. Talking to a licensed healthcare professional, such as a counselor or psychiatrist, is another treatment method for your depression. Keep in mind that these types of services are also useful for treatment of nicotine addiction associated with smoking.
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS therapy is another type of therapy that is particularly useful for individuals suffering from treatment-resistant depression. It is a non-invasive, alternative treatment that utilizes electrical stimulation of relevant areas of the brain to alleviate the symptoms associated with clinical depression.
A woman is doing a walking exercise, one of the lifestyle changes a person can make to deal with depression.
Exercise, along with other lifestyle changes, can help to establish a better well-being. Along with trying to quit smoking, better nutrition and sleep can also alleviate the symptoms associated with depression and even lessen your anxiety. If natural lifestyle changes don’t effectively treat your depression, consider seeking professional help.

Smoking, in general, can have profound negative effects on your physical and mental health. Though its mechanism of action does help you feel better in the moment, smoking does not help with your depression overall. In fact, smoking is likely making your depression worse. By encouraging lower levels of dopamine, smoking impacts a chemical in your body that is associated with symptoms of depression. 

If you want to tackle your depression more effectively in the long-run, you will want to consider changing these habits. Though it is not an easy feat, quitting smoking could have some major beneficial effects when it comes to combating your depression. There are plenty of alternative treatments that are more efficacious and healthier over a longer time period.

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