Oct. 28, 2013 at 7:49 PM ET
If quitting smoking were a breeze, then 44 to 46 million of us wouldn’t still be lighting up. The truth is that stopping is tough. And while there are lots of tools in the medical arsenal—from popping pills to snapping your way through packs of nicotine gum—there are also natural approaches that may also help. “Quitting is a challenge—it often takes a multipronged, integrated approach to succeed,” says Amit Sood, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic. Feel free to mix and match these 14 all-natural approaches to kicking butt for good.
Switch up your diet
Certain foods make cigarettes taste tasty—and others not so much. Researchers at Duke University asked smokers to list the foods that made them savor the flavor of cigs. Seventy percent reported that red meat, coffee and alcohol enhanced lighting up. On the flip side, about half the group said good-for-you foods, like fruits, vegetables, juice and milk, made cigarettes taste lousy. "Loading up on fruits and vegetables even before quitting might help cigarettes seem less appealing," says F. Joseph McClernon, Ph.D., director of Duke's Health Behavior Neuroscience Research Program. Can't hurt to have your taste buds on your side.
Some of the gnawing hunger that quitters have for cigarettes may be a hankering for something else. "Perhaps as much as 30 percent of a smoker's cravings are actually for carbohydrates rather than nicotine," says Jonathan Foulds, Ph.D., professor of public health sciences and psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine. Studies show that sucking a few glucose tablets—the type drugstores sell for diabetics—helps to satiate the longing. Anecdotally, Foulds says, patients list Jujubes as the candy of choice—they're long lasting and low cal (120 calories per 1.5-ounce box). As he puts it, "It's not that sugar is good for you, just that smoking is worse."
Get a move on
Working out works for cravings, too. Research at Brown University showed that women who exercised vigorously—at around 80 percent of their maximum heart rate—improved their quit rates (19 percent versus 10 percent at the end of the 12-week program) and had a longer string of no-relapse days than non-exercisers. The researchers suggest that exercise may help prevent depression, relieve tension and reduce weight gain in women trying to kick the habit. In addition, research at the University of Exeter in the UK suggests that exercise triggers changes in brain activity. In that study, smokers who cycled at a moderate pace had fewer cravings after abstaining from nicotine for 15 hours, as measured by MRI reactions to cigarette images, than non-cyclers.
Paging Bruce Lee! Researchers at the University of Miami tested the effectiveness of the ancient martial art tai chi in helping smokers quit. Participants took tai chi classes for one hour, three times per week. After 12 weeks, and with no other formal cessation component, nearly 60 percent had stopped smoking, says Jef Morris, the tai chi master trainer who runs the program. What's the connection? "Smoking gives people a feeling of relaxation in the way they breathe. With tai chi, they breathe well and feel stronger, and they find that the conscious breathing and flow of movement also reduce stress," Morris says.
Time it right
Turns out going whole hog on a diet and exercise program just as you quit smoking may be biting off more than you can chew. "We found those who succeed at quitting smoking while not gaining weight are those who approach it sequentially—quit now, diet later," says Bonnie Spring, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. How much later? From a few weeks to two months. "It's so easy to get overwhelmed with quitting that it's wiser not to wholly change your diet or exercise regime simultaneously," says Spring.
Skip the John
There's a lot of Web chatter about St. John's wort as a stop-smoking aid, and it makes sense: The herbal antidepressant is thought to work in a similar way to a prescription medication, bupropion, used for tobacco cessation (by inhibiting the reuptake of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine). But after a multiyear double-blind study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic were not impressed. "We found no evidence that St. John's wort was effective," says Dr. Sood. "The truth is traditional pharmaceutical and behavioral approaches and alternative mind-body approaches both have more promise than the supplement."
There's strength in numbers when it comes to quitting. After analyzing the quit rates of 1,000 people in treatment programs—some who met one on one and others who met with a group—researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Public Health found the group quit rate at six months was 41 percent (12 points higher than the one-on-oners). Other UMDNJ research concurs. Forty to 50 percent of people who attended six group meetings at their workplace—sharing stories, laughs, compassion—were successful quitters six months out. Join the group!
Talk the talk
It sounds too simple to be true: Talking to your doctor about smoking increases the chances you'll quit. A review of 31,000 smokers in the UK found that even brief doctor-patient chats up the odds of quitting by 3 percent—for up to a year. How you talk to yourself counts, too. "Stop, quit, give up—so much of the language of quitting is negative," says Janet Konefal, Ph.D., assistant dean of complementary and integrative medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "We tell people to talk positively to themselves when they're ruminating about a cigarette. Something simple like 'I can do this' can be remarkably powerful."
Gross yourself out
Ever tape a pic of a bikini model to the fridge for thinspiration? This is that idea in reverse. Images of a mouth with cancerous lesions on the lips and rotten teeth, diseased lungs or a tracheotomy are potent motivators, according to research from the Tobacco Dependence Clinic at the UMDNJ School of Public Health. Smokers saw three types of warnings—neutral, graphic and text. A whopping 84 percent rated the graphic images as the greatest deterrents. Coincidentally, new FDA guidelines require cigarette manufacturers to cover half their labels with such images by September 2012. "It's a start," says Foulds, "but if the pictures were larger and more repulsive, as they are in Europe, they'd be even more effective."
Harness the Web
Does Twitter equal quitter? That’s the question posed by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, who followed 179 quit-smoking groups on Twitter for three years and found that in the groups eliciting peer-to-peer support, 34 percent of the tweets were related to quit dates, benefits of quitting and alternative treatments. But does online support make a difference? A new study launched by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the University of Washington wants to figure out which of two websites work for whom, based on gender, age and smoking profile, says Jonathan Bricker, Ph.D., the study director. The online study is recruiting participants nationwide through the end of the summer. Check WebQuit.org for info on being a digital guinea pig.
Mobilize your mojo
Where there’s a will, there’s an app -- for quitting, that is. Quitter, Livestrong MyQuit Coach, Smoke Out, Smoke Break and more than 40 others are a download away. “The applications work because they structure the quit attempt, helping you track progress, record your achievements and link to Facebook and Twitter to keep friends and family in the loop,” says Foulds. The rave user reviews on iTunes are enough to take your breath away, but a commentary in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes that many apps don’t tout evidence-based treatments. Bottom line: You’ll have to give an app a try to see if it works for you.
Get hip to hypnosis
Can you hypnotize away a habit? Maybe, according to research at Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Texas, where patients underwent eight hypnotherapy visits over a two-month period. By the last visit, 40 percent of them had quit. A different study suggests that men are more likely to succeed with stop-smoking hypnosis than women. "Hypnosis can be very helpful -- even one session can have an impact -- but its success depends on both the willingness of the patient and the skillfulness of the practitioner," says Konefal.
Stick it to cravings
Acupuncture, the ancient practice of Chinese medicine, needles away cravings, at least anecdotally. The clinical evidence is more limited. A meta-analysis of 33 studies of acupuncture and related techniques found that acupuncture was less effective than traditional nicotine-replacement therapy—but it also found that many of the acupuncture studies were themselves flawed. Konefal notes that research shows acupuncture enhances the production of serotonin in the brain, which smoking cessation decreases. "For this reason, we believe acupuncture works best if you get treatment the day you quit or within the first 72 hours," she says. "We use ear, or auricular acupuncture, and have found a total of six treatments increases quit rates by 30 percent."
Give yourself a hand
While most massages are whole-body, whole-hour affairs, two minutes of self-message can have a powerful antismoking effect. In a small study at the University of Miami, researchers found that when smokers gave themselves a two-minute ear or hand massage every day for a month, they lit up less. "It makes sense since we know from acupuncture that the ear is a microsystem of the body," says Konefal. There's also the added benefit that your hands are doing something other than striking a match.
Put your mind to It
Listening to a CD to practice "mindful meditation" may turn up the volume on quitting. A pilot study of longtime smokers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found more than half—56 percent—stopped smoking after eight group sessions teaching meditation and daily practice with a CD. Those who spent an average of 45 minutes a day meditating did better than those who spent 20-something minutes per day. iTunes is full of meditative picks. All together now: Ommmmm.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.