The Benefits of Quitting Smoking and 5 Natural Ways to Kick the Habit

Quitting smoking may feel like an uphill battle at first, but it'll get better. And with your increased lung power, you'll be able to run up all these stairs instead. CSLD/Shutterstock

At this point, we are all aware of the dangers of cigarette smoking and how beneficial it is to health to quit smoking. Despite all the information currently available about the health effects of smoking, about 13.7% of us still light up daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says "Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the U.S. Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure." Why are so many people still smoking? Because it's a real challenge to quit. But it is possible, incredibly healthy, and knowledge is power.

Some health effects of quitting start to kick in right away. Your blood pressure drops within 20 minutes and within eight hours, the oxygen levels in your blood start to normalize, reports WebMD. Within 24 hours, you've started to lower your chances of a heart attack, and within 48 hours, your lungs start to clear.

Other health effects take a little more time. Heavy smokers who go through about a pack a day for 20 years have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease for 10 to 15 years after they've quit than people who have never smoked, according to a study published in the journal JAMA.

But the risks drop significantly after just five years.

"The risk of CVD does appear to decline substantially within the first 5 years, and smokers who are contemplating quitting may take some encouragement from this finding," the researchers write.

What quitting is like

A new year, a fresh month, or even the beginning of a week (Mondays are a great time to quit) are all popular times to quit smoking. On average, smokers try to quit anywhere from six to 30 times before they succeed, but the good news is that the hardest of the nicotine withdrawal symptoms peak two to three days after you quit; if you can last for a full week, you are 10 times more likely to be able to stay off the cigs for good.

Be prepared: Quitting smoking will take some energy, and you might not be at your very best for a few days. But compared to living 10 fewer years — which is the average amount of time smoking takes from your life — and the fact that smokers get more colds and flu, by quitting, you'll be saving yourself time overall.

Accept that you are going to be a bit uncomfortable: You might experience greater hunger than usual; you might be grumpy or feel depressed; you may be dogged by insomnia; you'll probably feel restless and have trouble focusing. But just keep in mind that these are temporary effects and they will disappear after a few days — though you may have the urge to smoke for the rest of your life. And remember, if you have been a regular smoker and are addicted to cigarettes, you won't be able to just smoke occasionally like some people can; once you have quit, that's it for your smoking life.

Natural ways to quit smoking

Conservationists argue that plants aren't as appreciated as animals. Skumer/Shutterstock

There are plenty of quit-smoking aids from Chantix and other pharmaceuticals to nicotine gums, lozenges and nasal sprays. All of the previous have a statistically significant impact on smoking cessation (people who use them tend to have higher rates of staying nonsmokers). But those come with a risk of side effects, so you may be considering non-pharmaceutical methods, too. Whether you want to quit smoking without using drugs, or if you want to supplement your plan with effective natural methods, the list below could be helpful. Remember, you need as as many tools in your arsenal as you can get.

Exercise is one of the best ways to address short-term nicotine cravings. If you are feeling super-cravey, stand up and move around and go outside ASAP. Just five minutes of moderate-intensity activity (traverse a few flights of stairs, walk briskly around the block, do some yoga moves, or dance around to some silly songs) has been proven to reduce cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms. If you can, taking 45 minutes a day to really get your heart rate up and your body moving will not only naturally raise your feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, but will help you recognize the physical benefits of quitting smoking, like increased lung function (which means it will be easier to breathe when you are working out).

Mindfulness and meditation can be useful as part of a quitting-smoking program — not because they reduce the urge to smoke, but because practicing mindfulness can change how you respond to those urges when they come up. One way to work mindfulness into a stop-smoking routine would be to take time to breathe and clear the mind every time you want to light up. Instead of fighting the urge, be with it, examine it, question it, then let your mind get empty. It's also a really nice way to take a break without going outside to puff. You can even try it in combination with the exercise idea — a walking meditation can be a powerful tool.

Herbal assistance, like St. John's Wort (check with your doctor before you take this as it interacts with a number of medications) or lobelia, can help relax you through the possibly tense time when you first quit. Lobelia has the added bonus of making cigarettes taste bad for some people.

Acupuncture has similar rates of effectiveness as nicotine replacements. It helps significantly in the beginning stages of quitting smoking, but after a year, like nicotine patches and pills, it has no better effect than a placebo. Some people find it effective through the first weeks without cigarettes, and that might be all you need.

Go on vacation or otherwise change up your schedule and habits. If you are out of your typical surroundings and in a new space, it might be easier to get through those challenging first few days. Planning a busy few days in a foreign country can be just the thing to distract you from smoking at first, though you will still have to deal with some of the later discomfort.

There has been a lot of talk about e-cigarettes recently. How effective they are at helping people quit regular cigarettes — the FDA doesn't approve them for this use yet — is mostly unknown. A study published in BMJ says they may reduce the number of unsuccessful attempts to quit. However, e-cigarettes are linked to a serious vaping-related lung illness, so the CDC has urged Americans to stop using them while the illness is being investigated.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in January 2014.