Does Smoking Really Affect Your Brain?

By Faraz khan +2 more

31st May is known as the ”World No Tobacco Day” and for a good reason too. Did you know that more than 10 million die each year in India due to tobacco? India is home to 12% of the world’s smokers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). You have heard numerous people tell you that smoking affects your lungs. You have seen the gross pictures on cigarette packs but smoked anyway. But did you know that smoking affects your brain too?

breaking a cigarette

What Does Nicotine Do To Your Brain?

Nicotine works like the various neurotransmitters that are already there in our brain. It activates dopamine signals that result in a pleasant sensation in your brain. With the passing of time and more smoking, the brain reduces acetylcholine receptors to compensate for the increased signalling activity. As a result, nicotine tolerance is created in the brain.

The brain ends up needing more nicotine. As nicotine mimics the work of dopamine that provides the feel-good factor, your brain starts associating smoking (nicotine use) with feeling good. The nicotine in cigarettes changes your brain and makes you suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit. You start feeling irritable, anxious, and your body has a strong craving for nicotine. As a result of these symptoms, most people reach for another cigarette, and then another and are unable to quit.

Loss of Brain Volume

Brain size and volume is associated with higher intelligence and better cognitive functioning. The average brain volume in adult males is 1260 cubic cm and 1130 cubic cm in adult females. According to a 2017 study, the longer you smoke, the more your brain loses volume with vital tissues shrivelling up.

Smoking affects the subcortical brain regions. The subcortical areas of the brain are associated with pleasure, hormone production, emotion, and memory. Smokers thus develop age-related loss of brain volume that leads to an increased risk of dementia and is one of the ways how smoking harms the brain.

Dementia Due to Smoking

Dementia is a syndrome that is characterized by deterioration in thinking, memory, behaviour, and the ability to perform everyday activities. It is said to affect older people mainly, but it is not a normal part of ageing. Since smoking affects the subcortical regions of the brain that are associated with memory, it puts smokers at a higher risk of dementia.

In 2015, a research team reviewed 37 studies that compared smokers and non-smokers and found that smokers were 30 % more likely to be affected by dementia. Quitting smoking can decrease the risk of dementia in the person.

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Smoking Causes Cognitive Decline

One of the smoking effects on brain is cognitive decline, which usually happens as people get older. But in smokers, it starts much earlier. Signs and symptoms of cognitive decline include:


  • Delusions
  • Apathy (losing motivation)
  • Anxiety symptoms
  • Confusion about visual-spatial tasks
  • Hallucinations
  • Changes in personality
  • Depression symptoms

In 2012, the cognitive data of about 7,000 men and women were studied for 12 years. The researchers found that smokers experienced a much more rapid cognitive decline than non-smokers. Middle-aged male smokers were found to be more at risk than female smokers.

Cigarette smoking has been associated with dementia and dementia-related brain changes, notably gray matter (GM) volume atrophy. These associations are thought to reflect the co-morbidity of smoking and vascular, respiratory, and substance use/psychological conditions.

Dr. M.G. Kartheeka, MBBS, MD

Smoking Increases the Risk of Stroke

If you smoke say, 20 cigarettes a day, you are 6 times more likely to have a stroke than a non-smoker. Tobacco contains over 7,000 harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde, cyanide, arsenic, and carbon monoxide. These toxic chemicals get transferred from the lungs to the blood. They make platelets more likely to stick together. Platelets help in clotting the blood in case of blood loss, but if the platelets stick together, it increases the chance of clot-forming.

Smokers are at a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis where arteries become hardened and narrow. It restricts smooth blood flow making the formation of blood clots more likely. If a clot forms in an artery leading to the brain, it can block the blood supply to a part of the brain resulting in a stroke. This is known as ischaemic stroke. Smoking is said to double the risk of having an ischaemic stroke. If a person quits smoking, within 5 years, his/her risk of stroke will start decreasing to that of a non-smoker.

Increased Risk of Brain Cancer

Smoking releases a severe amount of toxicity in our bodies. There are about 60 known cancer-causing substances in tobacco. The chemicals that make up a cigarette are:

  • Tar: This sticky brown substance forms when tobacco cools and condenses. It causes cancer.
  • Nicotine: It is a poisonous alkaloid derivative of tobacco.
  • Arsenic: Arsenic containing pesticides are used during tobacco farming, and traces of them are found in cigarette smoke. Arsenic is commonly found in rat poison too.
  • Acetone: This is used as a solvent in nail polish remover among other things.
  • Methylamine: Usually found in tanning lotions too.
  • Polonium 210: It is a radioactive element.
  • Carbon monoxide: This poisonous is gas is released as a result of burning tobacco. It enters the bloodstream and affects the normal functioning of the brain and body.
  • Ammonia: It is used by certain manufacturers to boost the impact of nicotine in cigarettes. It is extremely toxic.
  • Toluene: A Highly toxic chemical that is also used in making rubbers, inks, dyes, and explosives.
  • Methanol: Also used in the aviation industry.

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Smoking also causes a temporary spike in blood pressure, which can weaken the arterial walls and make them more prone to form an aneurysm and rupture. The harmful chemicals in a cigarette are also implicated in the causation of brain cancer.

Dr. Ashish Bajaj, M.B.B.S., M.D

Also Read: Does Vaping Cause Cancer? Exploring The Health Implications

Smoking and Mental Health

Smoking affects the brain and hence, mental health. Sometimes, bad mental health makes people take up smoking and worsen their conditions. Other times, it is the other way around.

Smoking and Addiction

The nicotine from cigarettes alters the brain. It makes the brain connect ‘feeling good’ to smoking. Quitting smoking becomes tough after some time because smokers start suffering from withdrawal symptoms. They then find solace in smoking and fall prey to the dangerous cycle and become addicted.

Smoking and Stress

How many times have you heard somebody say, ‘I’m feeling stressed out, I need to smoke right now’ or ‘Smoking makes me feel relaxed’?

Stress is very common and can cause symptoms like headaches, irritability, anxiety, and/or breathlessness at times. Smoking increases the occurrence of these symptoms. Smokers start feeling the symptoms if they do not smoke for a long time and associate smoking with being a reliever of stress.

Smoking and Depression

Nicotine mimics the work of dopamine, prompting the brain to switch off its mechanism that makes and secretes dopamine. In the long term, the supply of dopamine decreases in the brain and inspires people to smoke more. There is a complex relationship between depression and smoking. Smokers with depression have more trouble quitting as withdrawal symptoms become more severe in them.

Also Read: Treatment for Depression – Medication, Therapy, and Others


Smoking and Anxiety

Research has shown smoking increases tension and anxiety. The relaxed feeling that smokers talk about after a quick smoke fades away just as quickly. It is hugely short-lived and only adds more jitteriness in the smoker, making him/her reach for more.

Must Read: 10 Tips to Quit Smoking Cigarettes

Smoking and Schizophrenia

It has been reported that people who suffer from a serious mental disorder known as Schizophrenia tend to be heavy smokers. Some people suffering from this disorder have claimed that smoking helps them to numb the debilitating symptoms of schizophrenia and also to mitigate the side effects experienced from the medication for the same. Ironically, recent research has found that excessive smoking may very well be one of the causes for the onset of schizophrenia. However, since there is more research required to fully confirm this, it has not yet received mainstream acceptance. Nevertheless, it is best to avoid smoking to reduce the risk of developing such mental disorders.

Do e-cigarettes Affect the Brain?

Yes, e-cigarettes have negative effects on the brain too. National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported that the nicotine in e-cigarettes goes about making similar harmful changes in the brain. E-cigarette vapour contains harmful chemicals too hence it is not a way out.

Tips To Help You Quit Smoking

If all this information on how smoking affects the brain has you worried, you can always try quitting. Most addictions are hard to overcome. But since smoking has been around for a while there are well-established methods to try out. Keep in mind, since everyone is different not all approaches will work the same for you. Some may be more effective than others, do what works best for you. 

  • Talk to a medical doctor, since withdrawal may result in several symptoms and you’ll want to be prepared for them. Additionally, your doctor can explain the overall negative health impacts of smoking apart from how smoking damages the brain. Your doctor may also be able to help you address cravings, but for additional mental health support you could reach out to a counsellor.
  • Addiction to smoking is usually treated with counselling in a group or individual setting. A trained mental health expert like a therapist or addiction specialist can help you cope and plan the process of quitting effectively. Group sessions may also help you find people who share the same issues and problems as you, which can be vital to quitting smoking long term.
  • Nicotine Replacement Therapy is a way to get your body off harmful sources of nicotine (like smoking tobacco, chewing paan, etc.) and replacing them with a harmless source. This may include chewing nicotine gum or using nicotine patches. The downside is that you’re still addicted to nicotine, but the upside is that there are usually no negative health effects from these replacement sources. 
  • Relaxation and exercise can also be highly useful tools when you’re in the process of quitting. Breathing exercises and mediation can help you cope with daily stress and the added stress involved with quitting your addiction. Exercise can help you feel motivated, energised and happier, which makes it easier to stay away from smoking. Apart from these, proper sleep, a healthy diet, fulfilling social relationships and an engaging hobby can also help.

Can Quitting Help?

Absolutely! Within 20 minutes of quitting smoking, your heart rate will slow down. Within 12 hours, levels of carbon monoxide in your blood will start decreasing. Within 3 months, lung functions and blood circulation will start getting better. Within a year of quitting, your risk of having a heart attack will start decreasing by a whopping 50 %. Within 5 to 15 years, your risk of suffering a stroke will reduce to that of a non-smoker.


Must Read: 7 Health Effects of Smoking

Disclaimer: The information included at this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment by a healthcare professional. Because of unique individual needs, the reader should consult their physician to determine the appropriateness of the information for the reader’s situation.


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