How Chantix Works to Help You Quit Smoking

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Have you been thinking about trying Chantix to quit smoking? Chantix (varenicline tartrate) is a non-nicotine prescription medicine that was developed by Pfizer, Inc. specifically to help people quit smoking.

How Chantix Works

Chantix works on two levels. First, it partially activates sites in the brain known as nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that are affected by nicotine. This gives new ex-smokers mild nicotine-like effects and eases symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

Second, Chantix has the unique ability to stop nicotine from attaching to those nicotine receptors if you smoke while using it.

How Nicotine Affects Brain Chemistry

Nicotine gives you an almost immediate "kick" of euphoria that's the result of rapidly changing brain chemistry, and it starts within seven seconds of the first puff on a cigarette.

When nicotine enters the brain, it docks with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. The nicotine molecule is very similar in shape to a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which affects many bodily functions, including breathing, heart rate, learning, and memory. Acetylcholine also affects other neurotransmitters that have influence over appetite, mood, and memory. 

In the brain, nicotine binds to nerve cell receptor sites in places where acetylcholine would, creating the same effects. Once it's attached, a release of dopamine is triggered.  

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter thought to be responsible for reinforcing the pleasure/reward associations people have with smoking.

It is this chemical process that is thought to be responsible for addiction. Other addictive drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, and opioids also trigger the release of dopamine.

The acute effects of nicotine wear off within minutes, so people continue dosing themselves frequently throughout the day to maintain the pleasurable effects of nicotine and to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

How Chantix Affects Nicotinic Receptors

When Chantix is introduced into the brain, it targets a specific type of nicotinic receptor called alpha4beta2 nicotinic receptors. It docks with these receptors, triggering a release of dopamine in the same way nicotine would, though not quite as much. For ex-smokers, the effect is equal to a low to medium dose of nicotine that lasts until the drug wears off, which is several hours. 

In this way, Chantix helps to relieve symptoms of nicotine withdrawal that people experience when they quit smoking.

The added bonus here is that while Chantix is docked at these receptor sites, nicotine cannot do the same. So, if you decide to smoke a cigarette while you have Chantix in your system, the cigarette will not offer its usual "feel good" dopamine boost. Smoking will be a flat/dull experience and quitting is hopefully easier to achieve.

Research on Effectiveness of Chantix

Six clinical trials involving 3659 chronic cigarette smokers were used as a basis for the effectiveness of Chantix as a therapy for smoking cessation, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The trials showed that Chantix was more effective than a placebo to help people quit smoking.

In two of the five trials, people using Chantix therapy (22 percent) were more successful at quitting smoking than those using Zyban (bupropion hydrochloride) (16 percent) as a quit smoking aid. For those taking a placebo, abstinence at the one year mark was approximately 8 percent.

In one recent study, researchers looked at 1086 people who quit smoking using one of the following three methods: Chantix, the nicotine patch, or the patch and nicotine lozenges used in combination.

The results indicated that the three quit methods were similar in success rates at both six months and one year. At six months, 23 percent of participants who used the patch were still smoke-free, compared to 24 percent of those using Chantix, and 27 percent of people who used a combination of the patch and lozenges.

At one year, the success rate was 21 percent for the patch, 19 percent for Chantix, and 20 percent for the combination method.

Other research has also shown that a combination of Chantix and the nicotine patch was more effective than using Chantix alone, though more studies are needed.

Even Small Success Is a Victory

While the success rate may not seem like great odds, keep in mind the sheer number of people who are addicted to nicotine and dying because of it today. Globally, smoking-related diseases cause nearly  six million deaths every year.

Put another way, tobacco claims a human life every five seconds somewhere in the world. A drug that has the potential to help approximately 25 out of every 100 people using it to quit smoking is worth considering.

It's also important to have quit aid choices available to people who want to stop smoking because what works for one might not work for the next person. Greater choice equals a greater chance for success, ultimately.

Chantix Safety

In the years since Chantix became available, a number of serious health concerns associated with its use have been identified. Chantix is a prescribed medication because, as with any medication, there can be significant side effects for a small percentage of the population.

If you're interested in using Chantix, talk your doctor to decide whether it might be a good choice for you.

Sources:

Koegelenberg CF,  Noor F,  Bateman ED, et al.  Efficacy of Varenicline Combined With Nicotine Replacement Therapy vs Varenicline Alone for Smoking Cessation: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. July 2014;312(2):155-61. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.7195.

Baker TB, Piper ME, Stein JH, et al. The Effects of the Nicotine Patch vs. Varenicline vs. Combination Nicotine Replacement Therapy on Smoking Cessation at 26 Weeks: A Randomized Controlled TrialJAMA. 2016;315(4):371-379. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.19284.

Pfizer. About Chantix. Updated July 2017.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA Approves Novel Medication for Smoking Cessation. Published May 12, 2006.