Healthy Living

What Is Nicotine?

What Is Nicotine: Facts, Side Effects, Treatment, and Therapies

Introduction

Nicotine is an alkaloid stimulant that comes from the nightshade family of plants, particularly from the leaves of tobacco. The type of nicotine found in tobacco plants is called Nicotiana tabacum. Nicotine can also be synthetically produced. 

Thousands of chemicals are contained in tobacco smoke, and nicotine is one of them. Nicotine is the main component that acts on a person's brain. High levels of nicotine and a number of toxins are also found in smokeless tobacco products, such as snuff or chewing tobacco. Nicotine is a colorless liquid that turns into brown when burned. It also takes a tobacco odor when it is exposed to air. 

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Although there is ongoing research about nicotine and its effects on the human body, there are also many available facts regarding nicotine hazards these days. At present, the major source of tobacco is the tabacum species. According to studies, sometimes, nicotine may cause complex and unpredictable effects on the body and brain. 

Nicotine and Body Chemistry

When nicotine is inhaled, it quickly travels to the brain and attaches to acetylcholine (neurotransmitter) receptors. A chain of chemical reactions would then begin and influence a number of functions in the body. 

Upon reaching the brain, the fight or flight hormone called adrenaline is released and is responsible for the shallow breathing and palpitations that smokers often experience. This hormone can also restrict the flow of blood to the heart along with increasing a smoker's heart rate and blood pressure. It also moves excess glucose into the bloodstream as well as inhibits the pancreas to release insulin that would remove excess glucose in the blood. As a result, smokers tend to have more glucose in their blood than normal. 

When nicotine reaches the brain, the neurotransmitter called dopamine is also activated. Dopamine plays a very important role when it comes to addiction since it is also known to cause euphoric feelings. Depending on a person's physical and mental state, nicotine can also be considered as a relaxing and energizing substance. 

History of Nicotine

The tobacco plant has been used as a stimulant and medicine over thousands of years. This plant is also native to the Americas. Although it remains unknown how the plant reached Europe, it is often thought that Christopher Columbus discovered it while he was exploring the Americas. 

During the 1600s, the use of cigars and pipes rapidly spread. However, people in Europe had divided opinions about its use. Some people considered tobacco use as addicting and toxic while others found it to have medicinal properties. 

Throughout the 1700s, the tobacco industry flourished, which led to the mass production of paper cigarettes in 1880. Since then, the production of cigarettes became much easier. However, in 1828, a German physician named Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt and German chemist Karl Ludwig Reinmann identified nicotine as poison when they first isolated it from the tobacco plant. 

Lawmakers eventually realized the negative effects of nicotine by end of the 19th century and passed laws prohibiting stores from selling nicotine products to minors across 26 states. In 1964, a study that linked nicotine to lung cancer and heart disease was published. However, it was only in 1994 that the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) officially recognized nicotine as a habit-forming drug. 

Nicotine Tolerance

People develop nicotine tolerance when they are continually exposed to nicotine. In this condition, higher nicotine doses are usually required for smokers to experience the same initial effects of nicotine. 

Nicotine in the body tends to disappear within a few hours since it is metabolized fairly quickly. For this reason, lesser tolerance develops overnight. Smokers also say that the best effects of nicotine are experienced from their first cigarette of the day. Cigarettes often have lesser effects at the end of the day. 

Is nicotine addictive?

Yes, nicotine is a highly addictive stimulant drug. Nicotine ingestion causes the adrenal cortex to release epinephrine, which also leads to a sudden glucose release. However, nicotine stimulation is usually followed by fatigue and depression, so smokers tend to seek more nicotine to feel better again. 

Nicotine Withdrawal

Since nicotine is highly addictive, people who regularly smoke or consume nicotine may experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop. Below are some of the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Cravings
  • Poor concentration
  • Feelings of emptiness

Nicotine from tobacco or cigarettes is regarded as one of the most difficult drugs to quit just like heroin, according to the American Heart Association. Moreover, according to a study conducted at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cocaine tends to become more addictive if nicotine is also present in the body. 

Side Effects

The following are the side effects of nicotine:

Heart and Blood Circulation

  • Irregular heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Enlargement of the aorta
  • Formation of harmful blood clots
  • Atherosclerosis

Brain

Gastrointestinal Tract

Pregnancy

Smoking during pregnancy increases a child's risk of developing the following conditions:

  • Facial defects
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Respiratory problems
  • Musculoskeletal defects
  • Problems in brain development
  • Low birth weight
  • Preterm birth

Other Side Effects

The use of tobacco accounts for approximately one-third of all types of cancer. Cigarette smoking is also linked to 90 percent of lung cancer cases. Other medical consequences of nicotine exposure include:

  • Lung diseases (emphysema and chronic bronchitis)
  • Worsening of asthma symptoms
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Aneurysm
  • Vascular disease
  • Passive or secondary smoke that may cause cardiovascular disease and lung cancer in people who do not smoke along with increased incidence of sudden infant syndrome in babies, and the worsening of asthma symptoms in children
  • Early menopause in females who smoke
  • Females who smoke and take contraceptive pills have an increased risk of developing cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases

Treatment

According to research, the severity of withdrawal symptoms can be lessened if smokers gradually quit smoking. Relapse rates are highest during the initial weeks and months of smoking cessation. However, a relapse becomes considerably low after a period of three months. On an average, people who quit smoking may extend their life expectancy by five years. 

Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs)

Nicotine patches and nicotine gums were the first NRTs approved by the US FDA to help smokers quit. A controlled nicotine dose is delivered by NRTs to help relieve the symptoms of withdrawal during the process of smoking cessation. 

Most NRTs are successful when they are used along with behavioral therapies. The NRT products that are approved by the FDA include:

  • Nicotine transdermal patch
  • Inhalers
  • Nicotine chewing gums
  • Nasal sprays
  • Lozenges

Non-Nicotine Treatments

Smoking cessation aids, such as bupropion and varenicline, are non-nicotine medications that are FDA-approved. These medications effectively help smokers abstain from smoking.

Antihypertensive drugs and antidepressants are also being investigated for tobacco addiction treatment. There is also an ongoing investigation of a potential nicotine vaccine to prevent relapse. 

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies have a vital role when it comes to the treatment of nicotine addiction. Behavioral therapies may be used alone or in conjunction with medications. Various methods are included in behavioral therapies to help smokers quit. Some of the interventions taught include:

  • Recognizing high-risk situations
  • Managing stress levels
  • Developing effective coping strategies
  • Improving problem-solving skills
  • Increasing social support

Key Takeaways

  • Nicotine is an alkaloid stimulant that comes from the nightshade family of plants, particularly from the leaves of tobacco. 
  • The type of nicotine found in tobacco plants is called Nicotiana tabacum.
  • Thousands of chemicals are contained in tobacco smoke, and nicotine is one of them.