DULUTH, Minn. — Quitting smoking is no easy feat, especially when nicotine withdrawal kicks in. Now, a new study finds one of the immediate side-effects of giving up cigarettes is a craving for junk food. Researchers from University of Minnesota Medical School say they’ve discovered a brain link between a person’s addiction to nicotine and poor eating habits.
The study points to the opioid system — the brain functions which regulate both addiction and appetite — being responsible for smokers seeking out high-calorie foods when they’re suffering from nicotine withdrawal. It’s a vicious cycle for people trying to quit, as junk food cravings can lead to weight gain and, in turn, can push people to go back to smoking cigarettes again.
“We looked at whether or not acute nicotine withdrawal increases the intake of junk food — high in salt, fat and sugar — and how the stress-relieving receptors of the opioid system are involved,” explains senior author Mustafa al’Absi, PhD in a university release. “Mitigating these challenges during the treatment process will help patients quit smoking while understanding their eating habits and encourage healthier decisions.”
Craving cigarettes leads to eating fattier foods
The team examined a group of both smokers and non-smokers between the ages of 18 and 75 during two lab experiments. Each group took part in a 24-hour withdrawal from nicotine products, while taking either a placebo or 50-mg dose of naltrexone — a medication doctors prescribe for both alcohol and opioid use disorders. After each session, researchers provided the smokers and non-smokers with selection of snacks differing in their levels of salt and fat.
The experiments revealed that smokers suffering from nicotine withdrawal consumed more calories than non-smokers. Participants were also less likely to pick high-fat foods if they took naltrexone during the experiment.
“The study’s findings may be related to the use of food, especially those high in calories, to cope with the negative affect and distress that characterizes the feelings people experience during smoking withdrawal,” al’Absi explains. “Results from preclinical and clinical research support this and demonstrate that stress increases proclivity for high-fat and high-sugar foods.”
A possible medication for junk food cravings
The study also finds naltrexone normalized the calorie intake of smokers, dropping them to the same levels of non-smokers. Study authors say the results suggest the opioid system may be what triggers withdrawal-induced calorie cravings.
“This is rather a novel finding in the context of nicotine addiction and has lots of implications for the development of future treatment,” al’Absi says.
“These findings extend earlier studies that indicate the impact of tobacco use on appetite and help identify the influence of an important biological link, the brain opioid system, on craving during nicotine withdrawal,” al’Absi concludes. “The fear of weight gain is a major concern among smokers who think about quitting. The key to removing these barriers is to better understand the factors that increase the urge for high-caloric foods.”
The study appears in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.