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Support to give up smoking, alcohol or drugs

We are all well aware of the negative health implications of smoking, drugs and high alcohol intake, yet many people still struggle to break free from these negative behaviours. Just like watching too much T.V, binge eating, getting too angry or overspending, drinking, drugs and alcohol can be a negative coping pattern used to help ‘normalise’ the demands and stresses of life.

Alcohol, drugs and nicotine create an immediate surge of the rewarding and motivating neurotransmitter (brain chemical) dopamine, so if we have turned to it for stress relief before, our brain learns that it will have this self-medicating effect again and set up a craving association response.

The same cycle happens with the neurotransmitter serotonin, which creates stimulation and euphoric mood immediately after a drink, but a significant drop occurs soon after, leaving us wanting to recreate that ‘high’ with the next drink or the association with needing alcohol to ‘have a good time’. This is especially true if we tend to low levels (with depressive tendencies or SAD) which also prompts sugar cravings as insulin (the hormone produced to transport sugar) takes the building blocks for serotonin into the brain. If we also don’t have enough ‘natural joy’ in our lives (laughter, hugs, comfort, support, socialization, music, exercise) we may be more likely to turn to alcohol or other sugar sources to prop us up and this can become a long-term conditioned patter and coping strategy.

This is especially relevant to those who use alcohol and drugs to help them sleep. Using these stimulants to help sleep is a false economy: the GABA (the relaxing brain chemical released after consumption) rush does stupefy and relax us at first, but then lowered levels throughout the night can impair sleep and jolt us awake in the small hours.

Reducing alcohol and drugs can create a phase where less GABA and dopamine is available to the brain and you may feel this agitation and inability to self-soothe, while your brain re-sensitizes to accessing its own stores. This can be difficult, especially for those again who tend to depression and fatigue, but it’s crucial at this stage not to turn to other sugar sources to replace this effect and ‘normalise’. That simply replaces one addictive cycle with another. Women may also experience more alcohol cravings pre-menstrually as will anyone during times of stress for soothing self-medication.

The aim in breaking a cycle that can send you back to smoking is to not to replace giving up smoking/drinking/drugs with another pattern and instead take up something positive that boosts your self-esteem and calms you down.

Instead look to introduce more relaxing ways of ‘cooling down’ such as gentle forms of exercise and leisure alongside moderate exercise.

Following a Mediterranean diet that is filled with lots of colourful fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and lean sources of protein will ensure that your body is adequately supplied with the nutrients needed to fight of damage caused by alcohol, nicotine and drugs. Eating 3 regular meals per day including complex carbohydrates and protein will also help to balance blood sugar levels and reduce cravings.