Smoke 'em if you got em? ... maybe not

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Smoke 'em if you got 'em," goes the old line from the war movies. Usually, the scene involved a group of soldiers taking a break from a long march. (If only we had to go as long ago as World War II to find material for new war movies ...)

The cigarettes were a prop, indicating a break in the action and a forshadowing of violence to come. Smoking was -- and is -- seen as a way to calm one's nerves after experiencing stress or anxiety over conflict to come.

Now comes word that the nicotine may have exactly the opposite effect.

According to Navy. Capt. Richard Westphal, who cited a 2005 study published in the "Archives of General Psychiatry," there's "almost a two-fold increase in the risk of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) for those who have a pre-existing nicotine dependence compared to those who do not when faced with similar exposures."

Quoted in The Stars and Stripes military publication, Westphal concluded that many troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who smoke and dip are more likely to come down with PTSD after exposure to trauma.

"We have people using stimulants to keep their edge, but the particular stimulants that they're using increase their risk of having difficulty processing the memories," he said.

"Remember the nicotine doesn't caust PTSD, but it creates an open door (so) that those memories and those experiences hit the hippocampus harder."

That part of the brain keeps track of memories, space, time, beliefs and values, Westphal said. The problem with nicotine is that it saturates the system of the brain that controls the feel-good chemical dopamine, which leaves the hippocampus vulnerable to bad memories and experiences.

In other words, nicotine robs the smoker of the sense of well-being he or she may need when something touches off a stressful memory.

Smoking is becoming a more and more difficult practice, with smoke-free zones more the rule than the exception. If you need one more reason to quit, or better yet, not start smoking, the study may provide it.

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  • This is fascinating. Lately,there is so much being discovered about the brain and PTSD. Neurofeedback has been shown to be very helpful treating PTSD for example. I wonder how the changed hippocampus due to nicotine would figure into this.

    -- Posted by lori763 on Tue, Aug 5, 2008, at 1:43 PM
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