Nicotine’s withdrawal symptoms are not the only obstacles during smoking cessation. We often hear stories about quitters being attacked by intense drowsiness as well.
So why is it that many people feel somewhat sleepier when quitting smoking? In fact, this is due to an interesting relationship that isn’t immediately clear until you understand a little more about the chemistry of quitting. This time we’ll introduce the cause of this drowsiness and ways to deal with it.
Why do I feel tired after quitting smoking?
Despite enduring the temptation to smoke during the process of quitting, many people experience bouts of drowsiness during the day. Paradoxically, at the same time many will battle with insomnia when quitting smoking – wait, why insomnia when quitting smoking? And while at work, many find it difficult to effectively focus on tasks at hand. So why is this the case?
It turns out there is a chemical called acetylcholine that functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain and body. This chemical serves both excitatory and inhibitory functions, meaning that it can both speed up and slow down nerve signals. Normally, nonsmokers are kept awake and alert by the brain’s release of acetylcholine. The chemical also helps stabilize mood and maintain focus, earning it the nickname “memory neurotransmitter.” It so happens that nicotine can mimic acetylcholine by binding to its receptors in the brain. Portions of smokers’ brains “perceive” that they are receiving acetylcholine (when they are actually receiving nicotine) and thus maintain alertness and concentration. As a result, the brain virtually stops producing acetylcholine.
If you start smoking cessation from this state by going cold turkey, you will have virtually no acetylcholine or gradually decreasing nicotine levels in the brain. Consequently there is not ample neurotransmitter stimulant to wake the brain. The brain in turn becomes rather unprotected against naturally occurring drowsiness – and ultimately as a result, people who are quitting smoking can perceive drowsiness far more intensely than non-smokers, while nicotine levels decline and acetylcholine gradually normalize.
5 Tips on dealing with drowsiness (and ways to relieve insomnia) after quitting smoking
How long after quitting is it until neurotransmitters return to their normal functionality? It is said that acetylcholine secretion in the brain is normalized in around 30 days after having your last cigarette. In other words, if you can overcome this period, these severe bouts with sleepiness and sleeplessness will gradually fall. Reaching that point, however, can be grueling for some, and particularly when quitters experience nights of insomnia, the temptation to take up smoking again can be great indeed. Below are some tips on dealing with mid-day drowsiness and ways to fight bouts of insomnia.
- Avoid caffeine.
We all know how coffee can help us stay awake and when we’re feeling drowsy, we want to jolt ourselves awake again with a burst of caffeine. However, as your body is going through the process of normalizing acetylcoholine levels, caffeine during the day may actually have the effect of keeping you up at night as well. Additionally, since smokers’ bodies often metabolize caffeine more quickly than those of non-smokers, there can be a tendency for quitters – who are generally used to larger amounts of coffee – to prepare a cup as normal and be hit more intensely by the caffeine.
- Switch for herbal tea.
There are a variety of non-caffeinated herbal tea blends in the market today geared to keep you awake and alert (e.g. ones containing citrus, eucalyptus or mint) or help soothe you asleep (e.g. ones with chamomile, valerian root or lemon balm). Have a look at the tea aisle in your supermarket or visit a local natural health foods store and ask for recommendations. Also keep in mind that drinking non-caffeinated tea can keep you hydrated and while helping your body expel nicotine while you are quitting.
- Get some exercise.
Changing up your routine is important after quitting smoking. Not only can boosting daily activity levels up a little help control post-quit weight gain, but it can have a positive effect on energy spend during the day as well. Hitting the gym before work and getting outside during lunch time for a brief walk or jog can help rev you up a little more. Just be sure you don’t exercise too much before going to bed, as it can interfere with your ability to get to sleep.
- Mind your diet and sleeping habits.
Do you tend to have a sandwich, pasta, or otherwise have a fair amount of carbs at lunch? If you do, you may feel the effects of a food coma 2-3 hours later as your body metabolizes things. Replacing carbs with protein and fiber may help you avoid feeling drowsy and can help boost energy levels naturally as well.Also, rising a little earlier in the morning can help nudge your body into a new behavior pattern. By shifting your body’s clock slightly, you may find that your sleep habits also improve.
These days, we are all plugged in to all kinds of news and social media, consuming all sorts of information. This can leave our minds feeling revved up and busy even as we try to calm down before sleeping. Instead, reading a book or paper magazine before turning in can have a calming effect – and many other positive effects as well.
Drowsiness during quitting is a challenge that can be difficult to avoid unless gradually stepping down nicotine intake. Some people may think that dealing with this on top of quitting smoking is a tough challenge to deal with. It certainly can be. Returning to a “normal” state takes time – both for decreasing the amount of nicotine in the body and for restoring acetylcholine balance.