Is It Normal to Feel Dizzy After Quitting Smoking?

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A reader asks:

I started feeling slightly dizzy within hours of quitting smoking. It's not bad enough that I'll faint, but I'm slightly lightheaded and that's a little scary. I think it might be related to smoking cessation because it started after I quit. Someone told me it's because more oxygen is reaching my brain now that I'm not smoking anymore. Is that true?

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There are a few things that can contribute to dizzy, shaky feelings when you first stop smoking.

Nicotine is a stimulant, meaning it revs some of the body's functions up into a higher gear. When you  smoke, nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the lungs and reaches the brain within 7 to 10 seconds.

Once there, it causes a chemical reaction that releases adrenaline, the "fight or flight" hormone. Adrenaline speeds the heart up, constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure.  Additionally, carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. Both factors work to diminish blood flow (and oxygen) to the brain.

When you stop smoking, nicotine is no longer triggering adrenaline to constrict blood flow and the absence of inhaled carbon monoxide means there is more oxygen in the blood. You may have read or heard that this causes dizziness for the newly quit ex-smoker, however, there have been no conclusive studies that show this to be the case.

Quit Aid Side Effects

Do you use a quit aid?  Some of them may cause dizziness for users:

  • The nicotine patch. A form of nicotine replacement therapy that looks like a tan or clear bandage, the patch is the only NRT that lists dizziness as a common side effect. However, all NRTs contain nicotine, and a nicotine overdose can cause dizziness. If you use NRTs to quit smoking, it is important that you follow the manufacturer's directions for use carefully and match the dosage level initially to how much you were smoking.  You don't want to take in more nicotine than you were used to.  Also, be sure to wean off of them in the time suggested.
  • Bupropion. Commonly known as Zyban and produced by GlaxoSmithKline, this non-nicotine quit aid was originally marketed and prescribed under the name of Wellbutrin as an anti-depressant.
  • Varenicline Tartrate. Developed by Pfizer, Inc. and marketed under the name of Chantix in the U.S., this is another non-nicotine quit aid.

If you become dizzy, use care when getting up from a lying or sitting position. Rather than jumping up, sit and stand up slowly to let your body adjust to the change of blood pressure.

If you experience prolonged or severe dizziness while using any of the above quit aids, consult your doctor.

Nicotine and Blood Sugar

In addition to the stimulant effects mentioned above, nicotine also inhibits the release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin is a hormone that removes excess sugar from the blood. It is instrumental in helping the body keep blood sugar in balance.

This imbalance leaves smokers slightly hyperglycemic, with more sugar in their blood than they should have.

Hunger is a symptom of nicotine withdrawal and of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Research has not shown a correlation between nicotine and low blood sugar when quitting tobacco, but moderate hypoglycemia can produce feelings of dizziness.

To minimize the risk of low blood sugar, eat regular meals and don't let yourself get too hungry. If you do find you're feeling shaky or lightheaded from hunger, eat a piece of fruit or drink a small glass of fruit juice to quickly raise blood sugar. Try to avoid eating processed sugar as much as possible because sugary treats can trigger smoking urges and pack on those unwanted pounds we all fear when we stop smoking.

Anxiety

Smoking cessation is stressful for most of us early on. We've come to think of cigarettes as companions, albeit destructive, life-stealing companions. When we stop smoking, the stress of that change can create feelings of anxiety for a time. If you experience cessation-related anxiety when you stop smoking, try using deep breathing or meditation to calm your mind and body. This type of anxiety will fade away as you become more comfortable as a non-smoker.

Dehydration

It is also worth noting that a lot of us tend to not drink enough water, and suffer from dehydration to some extent. Dehydration can cause us to feel lightheaded, so make sure you're getting enough fluids on a daily basis.

Drinking a tall glass of water is a great craving-buster and good hydration helps us feel better overall, a win/win.

Remember...

Nicotine withdrawal, while intense, is a temporary phase of smoking cessation. Better days are ahead once we clear the toxins out and our bodies go back to functioning as they're meant to.

Sources:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products. http://www.nida.nih.gov/Infofacts/Tobacco.html. Accessed September, 2011.

Pfizer, Inc. Chantix Medication Guide. http://labeling.pfizer.com/ShowLabeling.aspx?id=554. Accessed September, 2011.

National Cancer Institute. Harms of Smoking and Health Benefits of Quitting. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Tobacco/cessation. Accessed September, 2011.

National Institutes of Health. Water in Diet. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002471.htm. Accessed September, 2011.

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