Another Reason Smoking Sucks—Cigarettes May Trigger Schizophrenia
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Another Reason Smoking Sucks—Cigarettes May Trigger Schizophrenia

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We all know smoking is bad for your lungs, and your heart, bladder, throat, stomach—basically every organ and system in your body. But according to a new study published in The Lancetit might also be bad for your sanity.

Apparently, cigarette smoking is not only linked with both psychosis and schizophrenia, but may be a causal factor in developing these mental disorders.

That’s pretty serious business.

The Chicken or the Egg?

For the study, which came out of King’s College in London, researchers analyzed 61 studies of nearly 15,000 smokers and 273,000 nonsmokers; according to their findings, more than 57% of people who enter their first psychotic episode like to light up. The study also found that smokers developed psychosis one year earlier than non-smokers and that people who smoke daily are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.

Though researchers are entertaining the theory that smoking leads to psychosis, they aren’t 100% certain…yet.

“While it is always hard to determine the direction of causality, our findings indicate that smoking should be taken seriously as a possible risk factor for developing psychosis and not dismissed simply as a consequence of the illness,” Dr. James MacCabe, a researcher from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College, told the Telegraph.

The link between smoking and schizophrenia has been observed for years. In the US, 80% of schizophrenics smoke while the regular population has a smoking rate of 20%. But researchers have never been able to determine whether schizophrenics smoke to self-medicate their disturbing symptoms—or even to ward off the flattening effects of antipsychotic meds—or whether smoking in fact causes the condition.

So why would nicotine increase psychosis?

Too Much of a Good Thing

It all comes down to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that plays a huge role in addiction as well as a major role in the development of psychosis. Yes, it’s a feel-good chemical we try to boost through exercise, eating omega fatty acids and sometimes by taking antidepressants, but too much of it leads to hearing voices, lots of paranoia and hallucinations. This explains why bipolar folks in the throes of a manic high often get to the psychotic stage.

Too Much of a Bad Thing

I’m no scientist, but I’ve done a lot of research on schizophrenia since my sister suffers from a severe case of the illness. From the multiple studies I’ve read about the correlation between pot and psychosis, most scientists believe smoking weed can definitely can trigger schizophrenia in those who are genetically predisposed, and it can certainly make the condition worse.

It’s likely the same is true for smoking cigarettes. While most smokers I know aren’t psychotic or schizophrenic, those wired for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder who also suffer from psychotic symptoms would seriously be better off not smoking. Schizophrenia and psychosis are nothing to laugh at, and the more psychotic episodes you have, the more the condition can snowball, creating further episodes and leading to a full-on mental illness.

Sure, you can wait for the scientists to prove the causation, but hopefully the fact that this is even a risk will motivate people in this situation to quit. It’s bad enough that smoking ruins your lungs and can lower your quality of life, but coming down with a serious case of paranoia? That makes troubled breathing sound like a breeze.

Just ask someone who’s schizophrenic or who’s suffered a psychotic break (I have, on weed). It isn’t pretty.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.