Why Quitting Saddens Smokers

By Jeff Forester 08/04/11

Scientists confirm what ex-smokers already knew—quitting causes short-term misery.

Cigarette or wrists? Thinkstock

Ex-smokers know that quitting cigarettes can feel like the death of a friend. Depression and cigarette deprivation go together like, well, cigarettes and coffee. Many depressed smokers smoke to self-medicate. As The Fix's Dirk Hanson notes in The Chemical Carousel,  "Asking chronically depressed smokers to give up their cigarettes is like asking them to start taking a daily feel-bad pill." But a new study by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health paints an even bleaker picture for quitters. Using advanced brain-imaging technology, researchers found that early withdrawal causes a spike in the mood-related brain protein "monoamine oxidase A" (MAO-A).  MAO-A "eats up" chemicals like serotonin that help maintain a normal mood. As MAO-A levels rise during withdrawal, people who are already prone to depression become sadder. Researchers point to a specific substance in cigarette smoke as the feel-bad culprit—harman, which attaches to MAO-A. Lead scientist Dr. Jeffrey Meyer said, "This study opens new ways to prevent sad mood during cigarette withdrawal to make it easier to quit smoking." Future research could focus on drug therapies to shut down MAO-A during withdrawal, or cigarette filters that screen out harman or tryptophan—which becomes harman when burned. Such help doesn't currently exist, but sufferers can console themselves that long-term health could follow short-term misery.

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.