Nicotine is the major alkaloid found in tobacco. It is a chemical found in cigarettes, and one of the most toxic and addictive alkaloid poisons found in the tobacco plant. It can be found in lower concentrations in plants like potatoes, tomatoes or eggplants.
The ability of nicotine to regulate mood and improve cognitive functioning is probably the motivation for the widespread use of tobacco.
Nicotine is one of the most toxic and addictive alkaloid poisons found in the tobacco plant, and alkaloids react with acids to form salts. These salts may be used for medicinal purposes.
The most effective way of delivering nicotine to the brain is by smoking tobacco. The brain is where most nicotine effects occur. Smokers can modify their nicotine intake on a puff-by-puff basis and can control their nicotine intake to obtain a desired effect, such as stimulation (with low doses) or sedation (with larger doses).
On the positive side, nicotine has been shown to have positive effects on some medical conditions.
Some Facts on Nicotine
- Masticating or snorting tobacco products usually releases more nicotine into the body than smoking.
- Nicotine is at least as complex to give up as heroin.
- The side effects of nicotine can affect the heart, hormones, and gastrointestinal system.
- Nicotine may improve memory and concentration.
- There are more than one billion tobacco smokers worldwide.
The Effects of Nicotine on the Body
Nicotine can act as both a stimulant and depressant on the body. In the cardiovascular system, nicotine acts as a stimulant and causes vasoconstriction, which is the narrowing of blood vessels. This effect of nicotine causes hypertension, which is elevated blood pressure and decreases blood flow to the heart. This can lead to chest pain and increase the risk of heart attack.
How The Body Processes Nicotine
Following smoking, nicotine rapidly enters the bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and reaches the brain within 8 to 20 seconds.
The amount of nicotine that may enter a smoker’s body may depend on the type of tobacco being used, whether a filter is used, and what type of filter it is, and whether or not the smoker inhales the smoke.
Nicotine is broken down in the liver, and nicotine tolerance increases with the amount of nicotine consumed. Thus, people require higher doses to enjoy the same initial effects, and as most of the nicotine in the body leaves the body during sleep, tolerance may have virtually disappeared by morning.
One of the effects of nicotine on the body is increased reflexes, which mostly affect nerve impulses. The speed of finger tapping has been shown to increase with nicotine use, and nicotine has been found to improve recognition memory too. However, the improvement is modest at best and the risks of nicotine use do not outweigh these benefits.
Side Effects of Nicotine
Nicotine causes a wide range of side effects in most organs and systems of the body. These side effects include:
- an increased clotting tendency, which may lead to a risk of harmful blood clots
- atherosclerosis (plaque forms on the artery wall)
- enlargement of the aorta
- dizziness and lightheadedness
- irregular and disturbed sleep
- bad dreams
- nausea and vomiting
- dry mouth (xerostomia)
- indigestion, peptic ulcers, diarrhea, and heartburn
- changes in heart rate and rhythm
- increase in blood pressure
- constrictions and diseases of the coronary artery
- an increased risk of stroke
- spasms in the lungs
- tremors and pain in the muscles
- increase levels of insulin and insulin resistance, increasing the risk of diabetes
- joint pain
If a woman smokes while pregnant, the following risks may arise in the unborn child:
- problems with brain development
- behavioral issues
- high blood pressure
- type 2 diabetes
- respiratory difficulties
Nicotine is highly addictive and is one of the most difficult substances to quit once addicted. People who regularly consume nicotine experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop. These symptoms may include:
- a sense of emptiness
- difficulty focusing or paying attention, and
The American Heart Association says that nicotine consumed from smoking tobacco is one of the hardest substances to quit, and considered to be as hard as quitting heroin.
A study carried out at the National Institute on Drug Abuse found the likelihood that nicotine consumption makes cocaine more addictive.
Treatment of Nicotine Addiction or Dependency
The treatment of nicotine dependency is known as smoking cessation therapy and aims to reduce the urges to consume nicotine as well as the associated risks and health problems.
Drug treatment options for nicotine dependency may include:
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT)
This method of medication is available in skin patches, nasal sprays, inhalers, and solutions that can be rubbed into the gums. This is to reduce the severity of urges and cravings.
While NRT does not completely prevent withdrawal symptoms, it can double the chances of quitting smoking long-term.
This was used as anti-depressant medication and has been found to be useful in reducing nicotine cravings. It has a similar rate of effectiveness to Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).
The way it works is not yet fully understood, and it can cause insomnia as a side effect in up to 40% of patients. Bupropion carries an FDA warning, as some anti-depressant drugs have been linked to suicidal thoughts and behavior.
This medication partially triggers a certain receptor in the brain that usually responds only to nicotine and then blocks the receptor. This reduces the urges a person experiences while quitting smoking, and may also reduce the satisfaction an individual gets from smoking. This help decreases the risk of a relapse.
It can cause mostly mild nausea in some people who pursue this course of treatment, but otherwise, is normally well tolerated.
Other lines of treatments include:
clonidine, which is an anti-hypertensive drug that has also shown to reduce symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. However, it can also cause low blood pressure, dry mouth, constipation, and a slow heartbeat.
Nortryptyline is an antidepressant whose effects can replace those of nicotine but has many of the major side effects of antidepressants.
Counseling And Psychological Support Treatment
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and other medications are most effective when supported by counseling and psychological support and care.
This can range from counseling and advice from a primary care physician on how to stop smoking. It can also involve telephone and group therapy.
While the medications help tackle the chemical side of dependency, these psychological interventions can help people with nicotine dependency overcome the psychological aspects (such as low mood and irritability) commonly associated with withdrawal.