Does Smoking Cause Depression?

New information released by the Centers for Disease Control indicates that cigarette smoking among U.S. adults—those 18 years and older—has dropped to approximately 14.9 percent.

Even with this encouraging trend in the decline of smoking among adults, it is sobering to consider that these statistics still mean there are over forty million adult smokers in America.

The insidious health effects of smoking are well documented. More than 480,000 preventable deaths each year are attributed to cigarettes, along with significant increases in the risk for developing cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and many forms of cancer.

Another Risk for Smokers

In addition to the commonly known health problems caused by smoking, another potentially serious risk for smokers has been identified: depression. There is strong evidence to indicate that smoking may be among the list of potential risk factors that cause or increase the chances of suffering from the serious condition.

A growing body of research suggests that smoking and depression co-occur more frequently than would be expected by chance. One survey revealed that about 70 percent of male habitual smokers and 80 percent of female habitual smokers had major depression. The study also established that 30 percent of smokers show some symptoms of depression.

Another study by The Henry Ford Health System confirmed that daily smokers—a person who smokes daily for one or more months—have twice the risk of developing major depression as occasional smokers.

A Complex Relationship

Although the available information establishes a link between smoking cigarettes and depression, the precise relationship between the two is more complex.

Does smoking lead to depression in a causal manner? Or do the symptoms of depression increase the likelihood of habitual smoking? Some have suggested that perhaps the correlation between the two is a mutual interdependence, with smoking making people more depressed and depression making more people turn to smoking.

Explaining the Paradox

There is a further problem with understanding how smoking and depression are related: the differences between empirical evidence and the personal testimony of the smokers themselves.

On one hand, scientific data strongly suggests that smoking may cause depression. On the other hand, smokers frequently say they use cigarettes because it helps them to relax, unwind and reduce stress. These two sides seem counterintuitive and at odds with each other.

An explanation for this apparent contradiction may come from nicotine, the addictive drug found in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco.

Regular or heavy smokers experience unpleasant symptoms if they haven’t smoked for a few hours. This is due to the relatively quick dissipation of nicotine within the body, which leads to withdrawal. One of the symptoms associated with abstinence from tobacco is increased anxiety. Smoking promptly restores nicotine levels and reduces or eliminates these negative effects.

In other words, from the smoker’s perspective, the cigarettes help prevent depression rather than cause it. But it only feels like smoking reduces negative effects. The truth is the individual is actually experiencing the first effects of acute nicotine withdrawal.

This explanation is supported by evidence of depression-like symptoms right after quitting smoking. The initial period of abstinence is often followed by irritability, restlessness or feeling down. Once that initial period has ended, the person’s mood improves significantly, even to a point better than when they were smoking.

The general assumption is that people with depression smoke to feel better. But, in reality, smoking actually may be leading to depression and/or worsening the condition, if already present. Learn more about depression and what can be done to treat this serious disease.

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