Smoking Makes It Harder to Stop Drinking

This research was picked up by the excellent Castle Craig blog in March and looks at how being a smoker makes it harder to stop drinking.

Researchers at Yale University have found that smoking might be hampering treatment for alcohol abuse. Their research paper (“Tobacco smoking interferes with GABA receptor neuroadaptations during prolonged alcohol withdrawal”) indicates that, contrary to popular belief, continuing to smoke while abstaining from drinking does not make the process of withdrawal  from alcohol any easier to manage – and in fact may be making recovery from alcohol addiction far more difficult than it already is.

An airbag for the nervous system

As part of the study, the brains of the research subjects – made up of a mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic volunteers – were scanned to measure the levels of GABA (A). The GABA receptors in the brain control our responses to stressful situations. They can be thought of as acting like a kind of airbag for the nervous system: in situations of stress they slow down brain activity and reduce anxiety, just like the actual airbag in a car, which cushions the force of impact in the event of a crash.

In chemical dependents and alcoholics this cushioning effect is already not functioning at full capacity, and smoking, while no doubt providing an illusion of relaxation to many, could in fact be aggravating the problem.

The results indicated a link between the levels of GABA(A) in the brains of those who continued to smoke while abstaining from alcohol. Levels of alcohol craving among those who continued to smoke during abstinence were also found to be as much as twice as high as among the non-smokers.

Cigarettes, the recovering alcoholic’s best friend?

For some alcoholics in recovery, however, smoking can be one way to ease their withdrawal from drinking, and it is well known that many alcoholics do indeed smoke. Indeed, a cigarette can be someone’s best friend, especially when that person is struggling with alcohol withdrawal.

But, as discussed above, this new research from Yale University shows that this so-called best friend could in fact be acting as an obstacle to recovery from alcoholism. In an ideal world, therefore, recovering alcoholics would do well to give up smoking, too.

The hard reality of withdrawal

That said, curbing two addictions at the same time is something many alcoholics would say is impossible. So while the lessons of this research are quite clear, in the chaotic world of alcoholism it may be a tall order indeed for someone to kick a nicotine habit while also trying to quit drinking, particularly in the early days of recovery.

I completely concur that it’s a big ask in the early days and I stopped smoking on a daily basis a year before I stopped drinking but still had the occasional lapse on a night out.  I haven’t smoked since I stopped drinking though and if I was to relapse on anything now it would probably be a fag rather than a drink ……  What’s your experience?

PS Today should have been the day that I shared Veronica and I’s discussion about Step 9 but we’ve hit a technical glitch.  As you may or may not be aware Veronica is on maternity leave so we’ve decided to continue releasing steps 10 – 12 as planned over the next few weeks and we’ll circle back on step 9 when she’s back.  Apologies 🙂

Edited to add 5th May 2015: Prim linked this brilliant blog by Patrick over at Spiritual River who had this to add about smoking “Part of the path in recovery should include quitting smoking. Why? Because it is another step toward wellness. The holistic path will eliminate bad habits such as smoking. Many in early recovery hang on to this habit for a few years, but eventually people realize that they are still using nicotine to self medicate with, and that it is killing them. Also, those who manage to quit smoking in recovery have less tendency to relapse on drugs and alcohol, too. So quitting smoking is like insurance against relapse.”

10 thoughts on “Smoking Makes It Harder to Stop Drinking

  1. Interesting facts.

    I stopped heavy smoking a few weeks before I stopped drinking and found the crawings from alcohol fare easier top handle than in any earlier attempts.

    Now knowing about GABA levels (thx) – and despite people found me crazy in doing both – I can truly relate to a better functioning “airbag” by doing both.

    1. Thanks Soberman and yes they are definitely interconnected in how we fare in our quit attempts 🙂 Happy that it helped you!

  2. Yes, glad I quit years ago. 🙂

    And / but I would like to add here that Dr. Mathews Larson wrote that in 1985 already. The same with sugar and coffee. For her this knowledge is oil on her fire (is that an English saying too?) when it comes to disliking some recovery groups because in their behavior they seem to advocate addiction to smoking, coffee and sugary stuff. Which is counter effective – and known and denied for 30 years.

    I’m struggling with the sugar. It is ‘funny’. About a year ago I started to realise that I had to give up drinking in order to live and sobriety became top priority number one. Now I KNOW that I need to give up sugar, and I have done so years ago (when I was still drinking) but I can’t. ‘Haven’t really tried and I am sure I could if I would…. ‘ (where did I hear that before…) So yes, it is a BIG addiction. Going totally unnoticed by 98% of the people of this planet. If I had kids I would not feed them sugar, slow carbs yes, apples yes, but sugar…. I think sugar is the gateway drugs.

    *Handing in my soapbox again*

    xx, Feeling

    1. Ooh feeling you’ll get me on my soapbox too! 😉 It is becoming less conspiracy and more fact now that in the 70’s fat and sugar had a face off to be the food baddie and fat lost/sugar won and fat became the persecuted substance (although hydrogenated fats are still lethal). Now all of that is being reversed as the damaging effects of sugar become more widely known. Oil on fire is not a regular saying but I know what you mean and yes large numbers of people in recovery still rely heavily on nicotine and caffeine, even though we know that they are addictive too! That said you and I are still struggling with sugar so we all have our cross addictions to work on 🙂 xx

      1. Sugar, yeah…. our gateway drugs. Looking at the current rate I think it will take about 15 years for the first research to point at that exact statement. And inbetween I’ll battle my own battle with it and climb on a soapbox ever so now and then. 😉

        Btw: have you changes something in your settings? I now have to register my name and email before I post a comment. Or is that because I have logged of from WP and loged in again?

        xx, Feeling

      2. You climb on up feeling I don’t mind 😉 No no settings changed here from me so maybe wordpress have altered it? xx

  3. OK, public health nurse. Question for you. I was arguing about this with a coworker the other day, and I want your opinion.

    Let’s say you have equal numbers of heavy drinkers and heavy smokers in a given population. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the smokers never drink and the drinkers never smoke. If you could pick just ONE nasty habit for people to quit, would you have them quit smoking or quit drinking?

    1. Tricky question SC as both are harmful! From a health perspective I would say stop smoking. From a social point of view I would say drinking because of its links to crime, violence and abuse. As a public health nurse my focus is both individual and population wide so it depends on approach 😉

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