Smokers who finally manage to kick the habit are quick to tell you the first days are marked with nervous jitters, anxiety, and a strong craving for a nicotine fix.
What you don’t hear so much about is the great feelings of lingering sadness that some experience without their cigarettes.
A new study by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health has shown that this sadness may be due to an increase in a mood-related brain protein that results from withdrawal. This also explains why heavy smokers tend to be at a higher risk for clinical depression.
The mood related brain protein is called monoamine oxidase A (MA0–A). Advanced brain imaging revealed that MAO-A levels rose by 25% within eight hours after withdrawal from heavy cigarette smoking.
These levels were compared to a group of non-smoking study participants and were found to be much higher among the smokers.
The 48 participants involved in the study also filled out questionnaires that revealed those with high brain MAO-A levels indicated intense feelings of sadness.
Dr. Jeffrey Meyer, senior scientist in the study, states, “Understanding sadness during cigarette withdrawal is important because a sad mood makes it hard for people to quit, especially in the first few days. Also, heavy cigarette smoking is strongly associated with clinical depression.
This is the first time MAO-A, a brain protein known to be elevated in clinical depression, has been studied during cigarette withdrawal.”
How MAO-A causes depression.
The brain protein has the ability to consume certain chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, which help maintain a stable or normal mood. High levels of MAO-A, such as those found in early cigarette withdrawal, indicate that this process is hyperactive. The result is sad feelings.
There is a specific substance called harman in cigarette smoke that could be responsible for the changes going on. That’s because as someone smokes, harman attaches itself to the brain protein. When smokers who previously had 25 for more cigarettes a day quit, the MAO–A levels quickly rose to a level that surpasses that seen in healthy individuals.
What does all this mean for smokers?
Dr. Meyer states, “This study opens new ways to prevent sad moods during cigarette withdrawal to make it easier to quit smoking.
For example, it may be possible to improve existing cigarette filters that partially screen out harman, or regulate the amount of tryptophan contained in cigarettes, since tryptophan becomes harman when it burns.”
Until such improvements occur, smokers are left with two dismal choices: continue smoking and put both your physical and mental health (and your life) on the line, OR quit and suffer through withdrawal symptoms marked by days of sadness.
Though option #2 seems like the obvious choice, for smokers, there are no easy answers. Just one more reason to never pick cigarettes up in the first place.