If you want to know how to quit smoking—for good—you may need more than determination and nicotine replacement therapies. For women, kicking the habit may take specific gender-based strategies, according to the researchers behind a 2012 Yale University study that revealed differences in the way women and men respond to nicotine.
Researchers discovered that the brains of men who smoke have a much higher number of nicotine receptors compared to brains of male nonsmokers, but there was no such difference between female smokers and non-smokers, says lead author Dr. Kelly Cosgrove, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. The greater number of nicotine receptors in male smokers suggests that men tend to smoke for the nicotine. “But women may smoke to relieve stress and improve their mood,” Cosgrove says.
Women with high levels of the female hormone progesterone, which surges during pregnancy and just before menstruation, also reported more nicotine cravings and worse withdrawal symptoms, Cosgrove says. “That suggests hormones may play a role in helping or hurting women” when they’re figuring out how to quit.
Understanding such differences may unlock more effective smoking cessation solutions for women. Below are female-friendly tips for kissing cigarettes goodbye.
- Set a quit date for just after your period. “Withdrawal symptoms are similar to premenstrual symptoms so that right before a women’s period, her nicotine cravings are much worse,” says Dr. Robert Klesges, professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis.
- Do some navel gazing. Since women may smoke for reasons other than the nicotine high, explore why you smoke and how you feel when you quit, says Cosgrove: “For instance, if you feel fat, unhappy or depressed, those things need to be addressed, perhaps through individual therapy.”
- Find relaxation substitutes. If smoking has always helped you relax, find other healthy substitutes, says Cosgrove, like meditation or deep breathing. Try this breathing exercise: While sitting or lying down, slowly breathe through your nose, letting your stomach rise. Slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat for 10 minutes twice a day.
- Take up exercise. “Exercise can decrease stress and improve mood,” says Cosgrove. According to a 2012 Taiwanese study, researchers found that smokers who exercised were 55 percent more likely to quit smoking and 43 percent less likely to relapse than those who were inactive. Active ex-smokers also increased their life expectancy by 5.6 years.
- Seek other social outlets. Women like the social connection of smoking, says Cosgrove. But they can find that link elsewhere: “Make friends with people who don’t smoke or with people who have successfully quit,” she says. “If you start going to a gym, you will definitely meet people who don’t smoke.” New hobbies like knitting are another way to meet people and occupy cigarette-free hands.
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- Pump up nicotine replacement. Women should use both a nicotine patch and nicotine gum when they get cravings, suggests Klesges: “The two together are much more effective than either alone. And the gum gives you something to do besides smoking.”
- Try non-nicotine-based medications. Antidepressants like Xyban and Wellbutrin may be worth a try, says Cosgrove. “They release feel-good chemicals in the brain—dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin—so that theoretically you won’t need cigarettes as a mood booster.”
- Focus on beauty. “Smoking causes wrinkles because of the lip action, and because it ages skin,” says Dr. Len Horvitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Nicotine causes blood vessels to narrow, impairing blow flow and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to skin. Cigarettes’ chemicals also damage collagen and elastin, the skin fibers that help keep faces smooth.
- Understand smoking’s gender effect. “Smoking makes it harder to get pregnant and can make women go into early menopause,” says Cosgrove. “It can also make osteoporosis”—a bone-weakening condition—“worse, and its effect on heart health is greater in women.”
- Check out sites for women. Women.smokefree.gov, a site created by a branch of the National Cancer Institute, offers information on how to quit smoking and how smoking affects pregnancy, relationships and weight gain. Great Start (www.legacyforhealth.org) is a program of the American Legacy Foundation, providing a quit line that offers free counseling and educational information to pregnant smokers.