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Quitting Smoking Using Mind-Body Practices
January 12, 2018
Worldwide, tobacco use kills 7 million people each year, of which nearly 1 million are due to second-hand smoke. Smoking is also the leading cause of preventable illness and death according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Smoking increases the risk of diabetes, some types of cancer and both heart and lung disease. (1)
Quitting smoking can be tough. Fighting this addiction requires attacking it on three fronts — physically, behaviorally and cognitively. In fact, studies show that combination therapies can double or triple the chances for being successful. And, current evidence proves that mind-body practices like yoga, meditation and guided imagery may help with quitting smoking. (2, 3)
Breaking the cycle of addiction requires a rewiring of the brain to stop both the physical and the emotional cravings. The physical withdrawal symptoms experienced in the first week or two can be severe, and many who start smoking again, do so while the symptoms are at their peak.
And, it is tough to overcome the emotional aspect and break the habit. For some people, the toughest cigarette to give up may be the first cigarette of the day. For other people, it may be the after-dinner cigarette or the craving may hit the hardest while driving. (4)
While difficult, quitting smoking is a must to reduce your risk for certain types of cancer as well as heart and lung disease. The sooner you quit, the sooner your body, and your mind, can begin to heal from the addition.
What Are Mind-Body Practices?
The mind-body connection has been studied for centuries by healers of all modalities. With more research dedicated to understanding how emotional, spiritual and behavioral aspects influence our health, more answers are revealing themselves. In 2008, Georgia State University researchers declared “The Mind-Body Connection: Not Just a Theory Anymore” in a paper that recognizes how stress alters the immune system and how we fight diseases. (5)
However, the mind-body connection does go beyond just stress; the mind and the body are intertwined in all we do, and the study of this powerful connection now also takes into account our thoughts, experiences and choices. Creating a balance moves us into an optimal state of healing and balance. (6)
So, what are mind-body practices? They are a diverse group of techniques and activities that work to connect the mind and body together to improve both physical and psychological wellness. Commonly recognized activities include: (7)
To achieve this state, mind-body practices that encourage an optimal balance of mental and physical wellness are used. Meditation, yoga, visualization exercises, tai chi, hypnotherapy and biofeedback are all considered mind-body practices and while they have all been practiced for centuries, they are becoming more and more mainstream as research starts to show how effective they are in fighting disease.
More and more research is being conducted on the effectiveness of mind-body practices for fighting acute, chronic and terminal diseases including cancer, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, heart disease, high blood pressure, IBS, chronic pain, Parkinson’s Disease, PTSD and addiction. (8, 9, 10)
In fact, most cancer centers now encourage mind-body practices for those undergoing treatment as it is now recognized that uncontrolled stress has a negative impact on our system and prevents optimal healing. Leading hospitals including Memorial Sloan Kettering, the Mayo Clinic, The Cleveland Clinic and many others have entire departments devoted to integrative and alternative therapies for stress management, chronic fatigue, chronic pain and many other conditions. (11, 12, 13)
For those fighting an addiction — whether it is an addiction to tobacco, alcohol, food or another drug — getting the mind and body into harmony is key to winning the battle. In addition to the physical withdrawal symptoms, the emotional and behavioral symptoms can be overwhelming, and giving them the same weight (or greater) is key to successfully overcoming the addiction, including quitting smoking.
Benefits of Quitting Smoking
During the first hours and days after your last cigarette, your body begins the healing process as soon as you begin quitting smoking. Some of the early symptoms will make you feel worse, but they will get better. Let’s look at the healing timeline: (14)
1 Hour: Heart rate and blood pressure drops, and circulation begins to improve.
12 Hours: Carbon monoxide from cigarettes is dispelled from the body, increasing oxygen levels.
24 Hours: The risk of heart attack begins to decrease! And, exercise becomes easier.
48 Hours: The senses of smell and taste start to come back as the nerves begin to heal.
72 Hours: Nicotine levels are depleted! This is also when physical cravings reach their peak.
30 Days: Lungs are healing and athletic endurance increases.
9 Months: Lungs have healed themselves, and the cilia (small hairs in the lungs) have recovered.
1 Year: The risk for coronary heart disease is decreased by 50 percent.
5 Years: Arteries and blood vessels begin to widen, lowering the risk of stroke.
10 Years: Chances of developing lung cancer and dying from it are cut in half. Chances of mouth, throat and pancreatic cancer are also significantly reduced.
15 Years: Likelihood of developing coronary heart disease is equal to that of a non-smoker.
20 Years: The risk of death from lung disease and cancer drops to the level of a person that has never smoked.
In addition to this timeline, many ex-smokers will see:
- Skin starts to glow
- Hair becomes stronger and shinier
- Nails return to natural color and become less brittle
- Breath improves
- Teeth become whiter
- Immune system functioning improves
And, there is more money in the bank. If you smoke a pack a day — and pay the national average of $6.28 a pack — over 10 years you’ll save $22,920 if you quit. In areas that have higher taxes, like New York City (making cigarettes cost at least $13.00 a pack), quitting can save you nearly $50,000 over 10 years!
Conventional Therapies for Quitting Smoking
The advent of over-the-counter (OTC) nicotine replacement therapies have undoubtedly helped people quit smoking. However, these products are not without risk, and some consider them controversial as they continue to fill the physical need without addressing the psychological and behavioral sides of a nicotine addiction. Others view them as just transferring the nicotine dependence from a cigarette to another tobacco vehicle. The most common nicotine replacement products include:
Nicotine Gum. Taken as needed to satisfy immediate cravings. Common ingredients include calcium, sodium, sorbitol, talc, carnauba wax and other questionable ingredients. Side effects are possible, including: (15)
- an increased heart rate
- heart palpitations
- sore throat
- severe indigestion
- increased heart rate
Nicotine Patch. Put on once a day, the patch delivers a constant stream of nicotine into your system to reduce cravings and limit the symptoms of withdrawal. Common side effects of the patch include: (16)
- skin irritation
- rapid heartbeat
- vivid (sometimes violent) dreams
E-Cigarettes. Replacing traditional cigarettes with an electric one is controversial. Nicotine is mixed with a base of propylene glycol as well as a variety of flavorings, colorings and other chemicals to make them taste better. One of the common flavorings added to electronic cigarettes is diacetyl, which can cause serious and irreversible lung disease. Rare cases of exogenous lipoid pneumonia as well as burns from exploding cigarettes are also possible. (17, 18)
Vareniciline (brand name: Chantix). The only non-nicotine replacement therapy on this list, vareniciline is available only by prescription, and it is not without controversy. Serious side effects are relatively common and can include: (19)
- decreased heart rate
- increased appetite
- suicidal thoughts and actions
Most of these conventional therapies do recommend that users take part in counseling or therapy to help with quitting smoking. Cognitive behavioral therapy should ideally be employed in conjunction with any steps you take to become a non-smoker.
Using Mind-Body Practices to Quit Smoking
Mind-body practices are widely used today in the treatment of chronic conditions and diseases. And these common practices continue to show promise for treating addiction while also improving overall wellness. Practices including yoga, aerobic exercise, meditation, guided imagery, acupuncture, aromatherapy, tai chi and others are generally considered safe for the vast number of individuals.
When quitting smoking, the physical and emotional side effects can be significant. Finding a way to ease the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal is key to your success. In the first days and weeks after having your last cigarette, work to find your recipe for success using as many of the mind-body practices mentioned below to help you manage stress, anxiety and depression, as well as the physical cravings. (20)
Yoga. One of the most popular mind-body practices, yoga is a holistic exercise that works to link the mind and the body through a variety of postures and poses. Known for its ability to improve flexibility, relaxation, and anxiety levels, research now shows that it also can promote the desire to stop smoking.
Researchers reviewed studies from a nine-year period that examined yoga’s role in smoking cessation success. What they found is that smoking and yoga are linked — both focus on breathing and creating relaxation. So, replacing smoking with yoga makes perfect sense. Ex-smokers enjoy reduced heart rate and blood pressure, increased pulmonary function and a relaxed mind, plus it increases the chances of successfully quitting smoking. (21)
Exercise. Irritability, angst, depression and weight gain are common when you quit smoking. Getting your heart rate up through swimming, walking, playing tennis with a friend, or any other activity you enjoy, will help to relieve these symptoms. And, if you have smoked for quite some time, you will soon begin to enjoy an increase in lung capacity and athletic performance.
A study conducted by researchers from the Moffitt Cancer Center at the University of South Florida shows that using a combination of yoga and aerobic exercise — to fight both the immediate need for a cigarette as well as to manage cravings — may be the best avenue for success. The study found that cardiovascular exercise and hatha yoga reduce cravings after just one hour of nicotine abstinence. (22)
In addition, participants indicated an increase of positive feelings and a decrease in negative feelings after exercising. Those in the hatha yoga group reported an overall decrease in cravings, while those in the cardiovascular exercise group reported lessening of cravings in response to behavioral smoking cues. A combination of both practices can help withdrawal symptoms on both spectrums.
Mindfulness Meditation. Meditation, practiced for thousands of years, is proven to relieve stress, lower depression levels, reduce pain, lowers risk for binge eating and emotional eating and helps improve sleep quality. This makes it the perfect mind-body activity to practice when you quit smoking.
Multiple studies have shown that mindfulness training and meditation help to change behavioral smoking patterns. One of the studies, conducted by the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, found that mindfulness training resulted in a reduction of cigarette use immediately and at a 17-week follow-up appointment. (23)
Another study, conducted by the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin, found that mindfulness-based interventions are beneficial for smoking cessation and other addictions through the reduction of cravings. Plus researchers indicate that mindfulness may help combat smoking triggers. (24)
And, perhaps the most telling study from the Department of Psychology and Texas Tech Neuroimaging Institute at Texas Tech University found that meditation improves self-control and reduces smoking. In fact, this study, utilizing brain scans, showed an increased activity in areas of the brain related to self-control. (25)
Guided Imagery. In the same vein as meditation, guided imagery has participants create and follow a visualization plan to relax and manage stress. Guided imagery can be practiced with an instructor or leader, or it can be practiced whenever or wherever it is needed. Before stopping smoking, developing a vision that takes you to a place of healing, calmness and serenity can help you manage the cravings when you quit. When you find yourself feeling cravings, visualize this scene to help you feel calmer and stay focused on your goal to quit.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a part of the NIH, states that practicing relaxation techniques, including guided imagery, is safe and effective for many withdrawal side effects including: (26)
- high blood pressure
- smoking cessation
In addition, they mention it may also help with asthma, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, heart disease, IBS and pain.
Hypnosis. This psychological practice is a technique for moving you into a state of concentration and focus, where you are more open to messages from an outside source. It’s important to find a licensed hypnotherapist to conduct your sessions. Hypnosis is often used for breaking bad habits and changing behaviors like smoking and weight loss, and research backs up its effectiveness.
A randomized controlled trial published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that patients participating in hypnotherapy for smoking cessation were more likely than patients receiving nicotine replacement therapy to be nonsmokers at both 12 weeks and 26 weeks. The study was conducted on hospitalized patients being treated for a cardiac or pulmonary illness. Researchers indicate that hypnotherapy should be considered an asset in smoking cessation programs once patients are released. (27)
Tai Chi. This ancient Chinese tradition is practiced today as a gentle and graceful exercise. A series of movements are performed in a focused and slow manner, accompanied by deep breathing. Tai chi is known for promoting stress reduction. It is also recognized for combatting many of the withdrawal symptoms ex-smokers face, like improved mood and sleep. As you develop in your practice, tai chi begins to become a meditative art. And, for smoking cessation, research shows it helps to break the cycles of addiction and habit. (28)
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that practicing Tai chi significantly increases blood serotonin levels and significantly reduces nicotine dependence, depression and anger. In this study, the group practiced the 24-posture yang style of tai chi for 50 minutes, three times a week for eight weeks. One of the great benefits of this mind-body practice is that once you learn it, you can practice it anywhere. (29, 30)
Related: Aversion Therapy: What Is It, Is It Effective & Why Is It Controversial?
Possible Challenges & How to Beat Them
After you’ve smoked your last cigarette, you will face temptation as the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms kick in. Remember, fighting a nicotine dependence requires battling not just the physical addiction, but also the behavioral and psychological addictions that have developed while you were a smoker.
It only takes a moment to light up a cigarette and inhale, but it takes weeks or months to get your body and your mind to adjust to not smoking. Along the way, you’ll experience good days and bad days. You’ll find yourself craving a cigarette when you encounter a trigger or even when you are just bored. It is vital to recognize your personal triggers and to have an action plan for overcoming the temptation. Challenges you may face in the coming weeks and months include:
Driving. Get your vehicle detailed to remove the lingering smell of smoke, and remove the ashtrays from the vehicle. When driving, it may help to change from your normal route or to change the music you listen to. If you have a long commute, consider joining a carpool with nonsmokers as the group can help distract you from smoking.
Drinking Coffee. For many cigarette smokers, the first cigarette of the day also starts with a cup of coffee. This combination gives a boost in heart rate and blood pressure that helps to kick start the day. When you are quitting smoking, this can be a very challenging time, and it is important to change your routine. Perhaps make Keto coffee and sip it while you walk around the neighborhood, enjoying deep breaths of clean, fresh air.
Drinking Alcohol. A cigarette with a cocktail is a natural marriage for some. Both have a relaxing effect at the end of the day. After you’ve quit smoking, it may be wise to stop drinking for a few weeks while you are developing your healthy coping mechanisms and detoxing from the nicotine and carbon monoxide. If you live in an area that allows smoking in bars, avoiding them during the first few months is a must to keep you on track as an ex-smoker.
Work. The mid-morning and mid-afternoon cigarettes while you work may be difficult to give up. These times of the day are often when you get to escape from the office, get outside, and just breathe deeply to reduce the stress of the office. When you quit smoking, don’t stop taking those breaks — just don’t take the breaks with the smokers. Instead, find a quiet place to do five minutes of tai chi poses or meditate for a few moments or just do some simple breathing exercises.
Eating. Lighting up a cigarette after a meal is common and this can be one of the toughest times of the day. One of the most effective ways to fight the craving is to brush your teeth. After a few days of not smoking, your senses of taste and smell will start to improve and brushing your teeth is a sensory experience that can help to remove the craving for a cigarette.
Social Situations. Parties and gatherings can be a problem for a few months, particularly if you have friends and family who smoke. In the first few weeks, it is wise to stick close to home and avoid situations where you’ll be surrounded by friends and family who smoke — particularly if there will also be alcohol, as it is known to affect willpower.
Weight Gain. Many people who quit smoking will gain weight. It is natural to fill a craving with something else, and quitting smoking will cause your metabolism to run a bit slower. So, now is the time to exercise more and to eat a nutrient-dense and healthy diet. Focus on raw fruits, vegetables and nuts as snacks and eat slow to enjoy your sense of taste changing! Adding some daily exercise to your routine can also help manage weight gain, as well as increase energy and boost your metabolism.
Mind-body practices are generally considered safe for the vast majority of people. Practice yoga, tai chi and aerobic exercise with caution if it has been awhile since you’ve exercised. If you have concerns about your exercise and diet plan, speak with your health care practitioner for guidance.
- Smoking kills 7 million people worldwide each year and is the leading cause of preventable illness and death.
- Quitting smoking reduces your risk for heart and lung disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes.
- Conventional therapies with nicotine can transfer your nicotine addiction from one item to another.
- Eat a nutrient-dense, healthy diet and exercise more to help prevent weight gain.
- Mind-body practices are proven to be effective for relieving many of the withdrawal symptoms experienced when you are quitting smoking.