Today, with more than one billion smokers, it’s fair to say that there are more people addicted to nicotine than to any other drug in the world. That’s because nicotine is the substance in cigarettes that causes people to become addicted to smoking.
With every puff, smokers are ingesting a toxic cocktail of over 4,000 poisonous substances. These include chemicals like acetone (a strong solvent) and hydrogen cyanide (used in the gas chambers for executions). There are also cancer-causing chemicals like cadmium and chromium.
Compared to these chemicals, nicotine is considered fairly benign.
What Is Nicotine?
With the first puff on that cigarette, nicotine stimulates the adrenal glands, which results in a surge of stimulating adrenaline. While not as intense, this reaction is similar to the rush that people report from heroin and cocaine.
Oddly enough, nicotine is considered both a stimulant and a sedative.
Within eight to 20 seconds, nicotine enters the bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier and stimulates the release of dopamine. The latter affects emotions, raising your feelings of well-being. Further sedative effects vary widely from person to person.
The one “positive” attribute of nicotine is its ability to improve concentration and memory. Scientists chalk this up to nicotine’s ability to mimic two other natural brain chemicals, namely acetylcholine and norepinephrine. These compounds increase wakefulness or arousal.
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A Brief History of Nicotine
Blame it all on Christopher Columbus. He’s the one who unwittingly introduced nicotine to Europe and started a whole new addiction that we’re still dealing with today.
When Columbus returned to Spain from his explorations of the Americas, he brought with him a new plant called tobacco. The natives had shown him how they used tobacco in their rituals to achieve a state of wakefulness. They also used it for relaxation, burning the leaves and drawing the smoke deep into their lungs.
Almost immediately, the world was divided, with many people seeing only the medicinal and pleasurable uses of tobacco. Others, however, noted that people seemed to become reliant on the leaves.
Consequences of Nicotine Use
The good news about nicotine is that within two hours of smoking, half of the nicotine ingested is already gone. The bad news is that it’s likely been replenished many times over since that first puff.
Just how much nicotine enters a body depends on how it was ingested, including:
- The type of tobacco used
- Whether the smoke is inhaled into the lungs
- Whether the nicotine is chewed, placed between cheek and gums, or snorted
- Whether a filter of any kind is used
Chewing, sucking, or snorting tobacco results in far more nicotine being delivered to the body than smoking. Each cigarette also delivers more nicotine.
Effects on the Mind and Body
Nicotine side effects touch every organ and system in the body. Even if a smoker doesn’t develop cancer from the other chemicals in cigarettes, at the very least they’re almost guaranteed to experience:
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Irregular sleep and nightmares
- Dry mouth, nausea, or vomiting
- Indigestion, heartburn, ulcers, or other digestive diseases
- High blood pressure and an increased risk of strokes
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Short-Term Health Effects
The liver has to clean nicotine out of the body and does so very efficiently. While some nicotine remains in the body for six to eight hours after the last cigarette, the majority of it is eliminated overnight.
This means that when a smoker lights up that first cigarette of the day, he once again receives a significant first kick of adrenaline and release of dopamine, which encourages him to smoke even more.
Long-Term Health Effects
Over the course of a day, a smoker or tobacco chewer’s tolerance for nicotine rises, driving him to have one more daub or cigarette to get back to feeling good.
Tolerance is one measure of addiction with any drug. Smokers may start out having one or two cigarettes in social situations, but soon find that their need for more nicotine has them smoking one or more packs of cigarettes daily.
Certain behaviors may also soon build up around the smoking of cigarettes that can be seen as addictive in themselves. Many smokers report they miss the feeling of holding a cigarette or the “break” in their daily routine that smoking a cigarette provides nearly as much as the cigarette itself.
The biggest measure of addiction is what happens when someone stops taking the drug in question. Withdrawal symptoms for smokers may include:
- Moodiness and irritability
- Difficulty focusing
According to the American Heart Association, these symptoms make nicotine one of the hardest substances to quit. They equate it with trying to quit heroin.
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Using Nicotine With Other Drugs
Marijuana was once called a “gateway” drug that made it easier for a person to go from smoking marijuana to shooting up heroin. Today, there is growing evidence that nicotine is the true gateway drug.
A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse concluded that nicotine can even make cocaine more addictive. Other studies have shown that it increases the chances someone will become addicted to other drugs, such as opioids.
Treating Nicotine Addiction
Each year, one of the top New Year’s resolutions across the world is to quit smoking. Some of these people are facing a difficult health diagnosis, while others just don’t like the other physical results or the hard dollar costs of smoking.
Unfortunately, a study labeled it the most difficult resolution to keep. Only four percent of those who attempted to quit cold-turkey were actually smoke-free one year later.
Fortunately, there are a number of smoking cessation aids and programs that can increase your chances of success. Nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs), including patches, lozenges, and gum, reduce the severity of urges and cravings.
The best chance of success that a smoker has is when they combine multiple treatments. Using a single medication, such as one of the OTC remedies mentioned above or a prescribed option like Chantix that makes the act of smoking unpleasant, is not the only solution.
In fact, NRTs and prescription drugs are usually shown to be most effective when they are combined with some form of counseling or psychiatric support. A support group that meets physically or online can do a lot to help with the depression or irritability that accompany nicotine withdrawal.