Smoking impacts on mental health as well as physical

Smoking impacts on mental health as well as physical

By William Smith

Wading through lengthy clinical research papers and studies can be daunting and almost make you feel like reaching for a cigarette – but stop.  New research suggests that smoking is not only bad for your physical health, it also impacts on your mental health.

We have known for many years, that smoking cigarettes has many adverse physical effects on the body.  A new Canadian study has shed light onto the link between quitting smoking and depression, an effect that is often felt by people trying to quit the habit.  The researchers feel that they have also found out why heavy smokers are often at a higher risk of clinical depression.

Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health carried out the study led by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer.  Myer and other researchers found a link between the increased levels of MAO-A and the decreased levels of ‘harman’.  Harman is a chemical found in burning cigarettes and MAO-A is a brain chemical.

Meyer reports that Harman is responsible for a change in MAO-A, and that that change is responsible for the feelings of depression that many who stop smoking often suffer during the withdrawal stages.  It is felt that the relationship between Harman and MAO-A could hold the key to understanding why heavy smokers are at a higher risk of clinical depression.

This is the first time MAO-A has been studied during cigarette withdrawal although it was previously know that this brain protein was elevated in suffers of clinical depression.

In an interview with the Star, Myers, who holds a research chair in the neurochemistry of major depression at CAMH, said ‘One of the reasons there is such a high co-morbidity between heavy smoking and depression could be Harman or other substances that are raising MAO-A during very short periods of withdrawal’.

MAO-A is a chemical that is known to ingest serotonin and helps to stabilize mood.  When levels are higher than usual, as during early cigarette withdrawal, this process goes haywire and becomes overactive.  The result of this is a feeling of depression.

Meyer and his team scanned the brains of 48 participants who were divided into two groups – moderate smokers (15 to 24 cigarettes a day) and heavy smokers (over 25 cigarettes per day). 

Researchers then looked at the brains of both groups when they were smoking for an eight hour period as well as those who had not smoked for eight hours.  No change was noted in the MAO-A levels in moderate smokers but in heavy smokers the levels of the brain chemical increased by 25%.  Researchers also found that the rise in MAO-A corresponded to a serious drop in the levels of Harman.  This was found by taking blood tests.

This study opens up new possibilities to treat people who are quitting smoking and, perhaps, to treat clinical depression in heavy smokers.  One possibility to be explored is to reduce the levels of Harman in cigarettes by improving the filter that block out Harman.  Another option could be the control of the amount of tryptophan found in cigarettes as when burned tryptophan becomes harman.

Don’t let these findings deter you from quitting smoking.  You may feel sad for a short while but this will pass quickly and the benefits to your physical health out-weigh this temporary low feeling.   Mental Healthy has a very interesting feature on quitting smoking : see Quit Smoking

This study was published in a recent issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. 

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