Many smokers experience a decline in cortisol to sub-normal levels during the first days of smoking cessation. A greater decline in cortisol is associated with more intense cigarette withdrawal symptoms, urge to smoke and relapse to smoking. Findings from an uncontrolled study suggest that glucocorticoids could ameliorate cigarette withdrawal.
We investigated whether taking oral hydrocortisone would reduce withdrawal symptoms and the desire to smoke on the first day of temporary smoking abstinence compared with placebo.
Using a double-blind within-subject randomised crossover design, 48 smokers took a single dose of 40 mg hydrocortisone, 20 mg hydrocortisone or placebo following overnight smoking abstinence. Abstinence was maintained through the afternoon, and withdrawal symptoms and the desire to smoke were rated across the morning. Salivary cortisol was assessed in the afternoon prior to abstinence (baseline) and while abstinent after each treatment.
There was a significant dose–response relation between dose of hydrocortisone and reduction in depression and anxiety ratings while abstinent, but there were no other statistically significant associations with dose. Overall, the decline in cortisol following smoking cessation (placebo only) was not significant. Cortisol level on the afternoon of smoking abstinence was not significantly associated with symptom ratings.
Supplements of hydrocortisone do not reduce the desire to smoke but may ameliorate withdrawal-related depression and anxiety, although the clinical benefit is slight.