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Quit smoking: Reap mental health benefits and boost physical well-being?

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Trying to kick the habit to improve your health?

Good news! Scientists say if you quit smoking, you may be increasing more than your physical well-being. According to a study published Thursday in the journal BMJ, your mental health stands to benefit, as well.

Researchers poured over 26 previous studies, and found that people who quit smoking had a reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety and stress, and an increase in positive mood and quality of life, after they quit, compared with those who continued smoking. The authors added that the finding was true for people in the general population as well as those with mental health disorders.

This discovery contradicts the widely held assumption that smoking improves mental health. According to the researchers, many smokers continue smoking because they feel that lighting up lifts their spirits, alleviating feelings of depression, anxiety and stress, and helping them to relax.

But the cigarettes may actually be alleviating withdrawal symptoms, including irritability, anxiety and depression, which smokers may simply perceive as improving mood. Experts suggest that these withdrawal symptoms cease a few weeks after quitting.

"Smokers can be reassured that stopping smoking is associated with mental health benefits," the researchers wrote in the Feb. 13 issue of BMJ.

By challenging previous assumptions about smoking's effect on mental health, the findings may motivate some smokers to stop, the researchers said. The study cannot, however, prove a cause-and-effect relationship between quitting and mental health improvements. For example, it's possible that people who experience improvements in mental health are those who attempt to quit smoking.

Researchers noted that many of the studies in their review were smoking cessation trials in which all participants attempted to quit. So in these trials, the decision to quit was not based on mood, they said.

For their review, the researchers chose studies that assessed mental health before and at least six weeks after smoking cessation. On average, the participants had smoked 20 cigarettes per day, and were followed for six months.

“Both psychological quality of life and positive affect significantly increased between baseline and follow-up in quitters compared with continuing smokers,” the review authors wrote. “Smoking cessation is associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and stress and improved positive mood and quality of life compared with continuing to smoke.”

Study author Gemma Taylor, a University of Birmingham researcher, told the Daily Mail that it is very important to show that stopping smoking leads to an improvement in mental health.

“Smoking rates in the general population have declined substantially over the last 40 years,” Taylor said. “However, the rates of smoking in people with mental health problems have barely changed.”

Need more reasons to quit? Besides lowering your cancer and heart disease risks, Smokefree.gov reports that kicking the habit will improve your appearance and even your lifestyle. Click here to lay the groundwork and quit smoking today.

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