She's not sure why she started smoking in her late teens, but Amber Shafer, a recreational rock climber, adventure traveler, and mother of one, says she wants to quit her several-cigarettes-a-day habit. "I hate the way it smells. It makes my teeth dirty and my clothes stink. I know that it's ruining my heart and my lungs and will make me age faster than nature intended. Most of all, I really want to stop smoking so I can be a better role model for my son," she says.
Shafer lost two grandparents to smoking-related lung cancer, and she says her own deteriorating lung capacity is beginning to limit her recreation options and change her life for the worse. "I would love to rock-climb in more remote locations, but my lack of cardio fitness makes trips difficult if not impossible," Shafer says. "Lately, the hills really kill me."
After two unsuccessful attempts at quitting, once for seven years when she was pregnant and raising her child and again when she prepared for a surgery several years later, Shafer is stumped. She's ready to learn how to end her habit and regain strong lungs naturally and permanently.
Amber Shafer: Can I reverse the damage I've done to my body after smoking for so long?
Nick Buratovich, NMD: Yes. The body is quite dynamic and can recover once you stop smoking. In fact, it takes only two weeks to three months to improve circulation and lung function by one-third. Between one and nine months after you quit smoking, coughing, sinus congestion, fatigue, and shortness of breath decrease substantially, and in about 10 years, the risk of getting lung cancer decreases by 50 percent. The best thing to do is to stop smoking now. Then, a combination of healthy living and time will allow the lungs to recover.
Shafer: What can I do to stop cigarette cravings?
Buratovich: Nicotine stimulates the brain's norepinephrine and serotonin systems, which increase dopamine and cause pleasurable sensations. The amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan, and 5-hydroxytryptophan (a derivative of tryptophan) act in the same way and can be used as a temporary intervention while you cope with cravings. You can find these supplements at natural products stores. To get off the stimulant nicotine right away, use the supplements according to directions, in place of a nicotine patch or nicotine gum.
To kill your cravings you can consider using a tincture of lobelia (Lobelia inflata), an herb in the same alkaloid family as nicotine. Also, the homeopathic remedy Daphne indica helps with cigarette cravings specifically after a meal.
Acupuncture works on the central nervous system and so is effective at relieving cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Similarly, hypnosis can also be helpful.
Shafer: Do you recommend a particular diet for people who want to quit smoking?
Andrew McIntyre, LAc: I recommend a diet rich in antioxidants, meaning lots of fruits and vegetables. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), smoking is thought to create dry heat in the lungs, which can cause dry coughing and lung damage. To nourish the lungs and help restore function and balance, TCM advocates eating juicy fruits abundant in antioxidants, such as pears and melons, which are excellent for skin and cell membranes like those of the lungs. (For additional tips on kicking the habit, see "More Help for Hopeful Quitters," below.)
Shafer: What types of lifestyle changes can I make to help me quit smoking?
Buratovich: It is important to identify your allied activities and redirect your attention. For example you probably associate smoking with times such as after a meal, talking on the telephone, or enjoying a cup of coffee. You may want to change your morning routine. Take a walk after eating. Sit in a different chair in your living room or rearrange the furniture. Change the placement of the phone, for example, or sip some tea rather than coffee. It can also be helpful to initiate a hobby to provide a focus other than smoking. Obviously, you need to get rid of your smoking materials, so put away your ashtrays and lighters, and get rid of the rest of your cigarettes.
Shafer: Do you advocate any other therapies?
McIntyre: Although many people are reluctant to do it, I recommend counseling in some form, preferably from a counselor experienced in treating people trying to quit smoking. The effects of quitting are often difficult to predict, and depression is surprisingly common. This is not just because you're cutting off your supply of nicotine, but also because feelings of grief and loss often occur. When combined, acupuncture and counseling are powerful tools to help people quit smoking.
Shafer: Are there any remedies I can take or exercises I can practice to improve my lung function once I've quit?
McIntyre: I recommend a high-quality multivitamin or a B-complex vitamin formula, especially during the first six months after quitting. A good multivitamin will contain a lot of B vitamins, which are important in helping the body recover and rid itself of nicotine dependence by combating stress and anxiety associated with quitting. Antioxidants, along with vitamin B, help repair tissue that is often damaged in smokers' lungs, improve the nervous system, and boost immunity.
Also, I strongly recommend yoga and breathing exercises in the form of qigong, a Chinese breathing and meditative art that some describe as Chinese yoga. Either of these can exercise and broaden lung capacity and encourage a focused mind that is committed to quitting.
Anne Burnett is a freelance writer, magazine editor, and high school science teacher in Denver. She dreams of a smoke-free world filled with healthy people.