Quitting smoking has never been easy. The earliest medications to help you quit smoking were based on the principle of replacing the nicotine in cigarettes with nicotine in other forms, such as patches or gum. With the nicotine replacement medications, you still have to use willpower to gradually taper down to lower levels of nicotine until you can eventually quit – but it doesn’t actually do anything to stop the cravings. That’s where newer generations of medications to quit smoking come in to help.
Cravings and Dopamine
Nicotine cravings are both psychological and physical. While the nicotine replacement products try to manage the physical dependence on the nicotine, they don’t help the psychological aspects of craving. Your brain contains receptors that respond that respond to nicotine, and the more you smoke, the more of these receptors your brain will grow. Eventually you need to smoke more to fill those receptors, creating a cycle with each cigarette that a puff of nicotine creates a nearly-instant burst of euphoria. Nicotine strengthens the parts of the brain that release dopamine. New medications work to alter this cycle, by blocking the amount of dopamine your brain receives and therefore weakening the intensity of your cravings.
The newest medicine that may help you quit smoking is a drug called Chantix, the brand name for varenicline tartrate. Chantix has been studied extensively and may double or even triple your chances of successfully quitting smoking. It must be prescribed by a doctor, and you start taking it about a week before we plan to quit smoking. Chantix appears to block the craving for nicotine and to smoke, so you may notice your desire to smoke already starting to decrease, even in the early days before you officially quit. Because Chantix does not contain nicotine, you’re not at risk of nicotine overdose if you smoke while taking it, but you’re not likely to want to anyway.
Chantix does have some side effects, including nausea and vomiting, sleepiness and constipation. One of the most common and well-known side effects of Chantix is an increased tendency to have very vivid and sometimes disturbing dreams. In extreme cases, Chantix has caused some people to have suicidal thoughts or even increased risk of heart attack, so it’s really important to stay in touch with your doctor while taking this medication and report any new or unusual symptoms.
Chantix can be a great tool in your arsenal of options to quit smoking. Its extensive testing has proven that the drug is very effective for a lot of people.
You can learn more on our dedicated Chantix page:
One prescription medication that can help to reduce your craving for nicotine is Zyban, the brand name for bupropion. This is the same medication as the atypical antidepressant Wellbutrin, but in a sustained-release form. It was initially approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997 as the first non-nicotine medication to aid in quitting smoking. Bupropion blocks the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which are linked to nicotine cravings.
Bupropion is usually initially prescribed in a dosage of 150 mg twice a day, eventually increasing to 300 mg twice a day. Bupropion can be safely taken for up to a year, and reduces not only the cravings for nicotine but also the irritability and difficulty with concentration that are often part of quitting smoking. The medication may also reduce the tendency for people to overeat while they’re in the process of quitting smoking, which could decrease or avoid the risk of weight gain.
Although bupropion is considered a safe medication, it does have some risks. Common side effects at first include headaches, insomnia, dry mouth and loss of appetite. Most of these side effects go away after the first week of use. The drug does have a small risk of causing seizures, so it’s important to make sure you carefully follow your doctor’s prescription advice and seek medical contact immediately if you have any unexpected or worrisome symptoms while taking bupropion.
A major advantage of bupropion is that because it doesn’t contain nicotine, there is no risk of nicotine poisoning if you continue to smoke. Of course, because the ultimate goal is still to quit, eventually you will need to stop smoking, too. Most doctors recommend that you set a date when you intend to quit, and start taking bupropion one to two weeks before that date to allow the medication to build up in your system and start working to reduce cravings. By the time your quit date rolls around, you are more likely to be successful because your cravings for nicotine will have decreased.
You can learn more on our dedicated Zyban/Bupropion page:
The Medication Option
Taking medication to help you quit smoking isn’t a cop out. You wouldn’t think twice about taking prescription medication to help you if you had migraines or diabetes, and smoking is one of the most dangerous things you can do for your health. If there was ever a time to call in the “big guns” and get some help, there’s no time like the present. You’re up against a notoriously tough foe and there’s nothing wrong with taking all the help you can get.