How to Quit Smoking Without Medication
By: Courtney Sperlazza, MPH
October 3, 2017
Smoking is awful. It makes your clothes and car smell terrible, and it causes cancer.
Nicotine by itself isn’t as evil as you might think. It gets a bad rap because of its association with cigarettes and smoking is gross. What you may not realize is that occasional low doses of pure nicotine can boost your energy, mood, reaction time, motor coordination, and memory.
But smoking cigarettes serves up your nicotine with a side of toxic heavy metals and carcinogens. Isolated nicotine has its problems, even if you get it from a pure source. First off, it’s toxic at high doses, and lethal even at lower doses for a pet or a child. It messes with your heart rate, blood pressure, and it causes inflammation.
And it’s addictive. As with all addictive drugs and foods (like sugar), nicotine activates the pleasure pathways in your brain. The more you turn on the lights in your pleasure pathway, the less pleasure you feel with the same dose. So, you need stronger and stronger stimulation to get any enjoyment out of it, and after a while, you’re so acclimated that you need whatever it is you’re dependent on to function at a baseline level.
If you’re sick of smoking and want to support your brain and body through the withdrawal process, or if you’ve tried quitting a dozen times with no luck, this post is for you.
What happens when you quit smoking
To start or stop any habit, you have to deal with three main things:
- Willpower – staying physically and mentally strong enough to keep with it
- Changing the habit itself
- Brain biochemistry – keeping your neurotransmitters balanced so they don’t sabotage your progress
Here are some tools in each category to keep in mind when customizing your three-pronged plan to quit smoking.
Master your willpower
If you want to make a change but you haven’t set things up properly, you’ll have a hard time with it. That goes for any new habit, including quitting something. It helps to know that you make decisions with two distinct brains that don’t work at the same time.
Your human brain is your rational conscious brain. That’s the part that thinks things through, considers all factors and calculates the best decision.
Then, you have a labrador brain. That’s the part that takes action without much thinking. A labrador will chase things and eat things just because it noticed them.
Your labrador brain is all about survival and operates on the 3 Fs:
- Fight-flight response
- The other “F” … ahem … mating 😉
When you’re in survival mode, your labrador brain chooses the option that gives you an immediate reward, because your brain’s reward center is what tells you something will keep you alive and keep the species going.
Of course, things like cigarettes confused your brain’s seeking and reward system to think you need cigarettes to survive. If you keep your labrador brain from activating, you can avoid the smoking impulse long enough to train your brain to stop seeking cigarettes.
Your nutrition helps with overall willpower
The last thing you want to do when you’re trying to quit an addiction is to go on a diet, but it might mean the difference between an easy transition and a crappy one.
The Bulletproof Diet focuses on nutrient-dense vegetables and quality fats, which build and strengthen willpower by keeping your blood sugar stable and your hunger (also a seeking behavior) in check. If you’re not hungry all the time, the labrador has no reason to clamor for attention.
Here’s why incorporating the Bulletproof Diet into your smoking cessation program makes things easier:
- Stable blood sugar. Low-fat, low-calorie meals spike insulin and trigger blood sugar crashes. Your body signals for more sugar to keep up, which activates seeking mechanisms in your brain.
- Low toxic load. The Bulletproof Diet also aims to keep toxins down. High toxin foods trip the body’s fight or flight response. When that happens, your brain scrambles for stability and seeking behaviors switch on. That could mean sugar, that could mean cigarettes.
If you’re not ready to dive into the full-on Bulletproof Diet yet, start with Bulletproof Coffee in the morning. It will make resisting cigarettes easier, especially during the first half of your day. Incorporate healthy fats – things like grass-fed butter, Brain Octane Oil, and cacao butter – to keep blood sugar steady.
Also, cut out sugar to diminish brain fog and give longer-lasting energy, eliminate sugar crashes, and ultimately strengthen willpower. If you notice how fantastic you feel and you want to keep going, you can focus on the other details of the Bulletproof Diet later.
Start a meditation practice
Meditation builds mindfulness, which puts a pause button between impulse and action. After meditating for a while, you find yourself more intentional about your everyday decisions because you’ve developed an awareness you didn’t have without it.
There’s science behind why meditation works. Over time, meditation thickens and strengthens your pre-frontal cortex. Neuroscientists identified dysfunctions in the pre-frontal cortex that sync up with addiction. If there’s a weakness in your hardware, it makes sense to do what you can to make it stronger.
Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm are a great way to start the meditation habit, and many come with a meditation to do in the middle of a stressful event to get you out of a tailspin. It’s better to reach for your phone and earbuds than it is to grab a lighter.
Decision fatigue isn’t just a Silicon Valley buzzword anymore. It’s real, and it can have a profound impact on any change you want to make.
Think of the decision-making regions of your brain as a muscle that you can exercise to the point of failure. All the little, seemingly insignificant decisions you make throughout your day – what to wear, what to grab for lunch, whether or not to attend that meeting – they all take a pebble out of your decision bucket and once you’re empty, you’re empty.
Put as much of your life on auto-pilot as possible. Automate your bills. Plan your day to the minute (don’t forget to schedule in some unstructured time and play!). Plan your meals. Cut down your wardrobe or wear the same thing every day like Steve Jobs did. Lock down your morning and evening routines, and don’t deviate from them.
The more you can preserve your decision-making capacity, the more likely you are to choose the right answer when your brain asks, “should we go take a cigarette break now?”
Find enjoyable stress-relief
Learn how to watercolor paint on YouTube. Join a biking meet-up. Start lifting weights. Just make sure to choose something that will make you a better person.
This will help to ensure you don’t go from one destructive addiction to another. Bulletproof’s medical director, Dr. Mark Atkinson, pointed out in a podcast about hacking addiction that people who have an addictive tendency often trade one addiction for another.
He points out, “You put down heroin, alcohol goes up, you go to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the people who go there don’t drink anymore but there’s sugar on the table and they’re talking about sex.”
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Just be aware of it so you can put on the brakes if you need to.
Now you can reduce your nicotine
You might incorporate low-dose nicotine into your custom smoking cessation program. Some people quit cold turkey and never look back. Others have more success weaning nicotine gradually.
Cigarettes give you a 15-20 mg nicotine jolt several times per day. The goal is to get down to 1-2 mg of nicotine every once in a while and to avoid using cigarettes to get it. This article goes through the pros and cons of each way to get nicotine. Opt for the purest form you can get your hands on, with a controlled dose (1-2 mg). You can work with a functional medicine doctor to decide how fast you’ll decrease, or you can base your benchmarks on how you feel.
Supplements to quit smoking
The biochemistry of what happens when you quit smoking and how you feel during nicotine withdrawal are inseparably connected. Here are some ways to take the edge off of the withdrawal process and maybe even move things along toward no chemical dependence on cigarettes.
Cigarettes stimulate serotonin, and your brain wants to keep serotonin production turned on. Supplementing with 5-HTP supports your body’s serotonin balance and prevents steep drops. The scientific community hasn’t explored 5-HTP extensively for nicotine withdrawal specifically, but an animal study showed that 5-HTP reduced cigarette withdrawal symptoms.
If you’re taking prescription anxiety or depression medicine, check with your pharmacist for interactions. Balance 5-HTP with L-tyrosine and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a powerful green tea extract. (Green tea extract doesn’t have enough. Get an EGCG supplement.)
Withdrawal is a detox reaction, and anything you can do to get the yuck out will help things along. A few sauna treatments while you’re withdrawing will help increase circulation and eliminate waste through your skin.
When you’re detoxing anything at all, you want to get poisonous residues out of your body quickly.
Your liver makes glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant. You can support your glutathione production by making sure your liver has the precursors it needs to make its own, and the building blocks are all in whey protein. Two to four tablespoons per day are all you need.
Alternatively, you can get glutathione capsules to support your detox.
Activated charcoal is an adsorbent, which means it grabs onto positive charges. Toxic substances and heavy metals, much like the ones in cigarettes, have a positive charge, so charcoal will bind them and usher them out of the body. Make sure you find a high-quality charcoal capsule that’s extra finely ground, made with coconuts (rather than charred cow bones) and manufactured in the USA.
Charcoal can bind the active ingredients in prescriptions, so this is another one to run by your pharmacist.
Also, save charcoal for the hard detox days (great when paired with infrared and lots of filtered water). It interferes with nutrient absorption, so take it therapeutically to detox – and never along with your nutritional supplements.
Remember, this isn’t a checklist. It’s not a series of steps. It’s a toolbox you can use to make it easier on yourself. Quitting smoking is a bumpy road and you can expect a few setbacks. Know that it’s possible, and knowing how your brain works and giving your body what it needs will give you an edge. You’ve got this!
Join over 1 million fans
Sign-up for the Bulletproof mailing list and receive the latest news and updates!