Tobacco use contributes significantly to heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. It can also lead to respiratory infection, poor dental health and delayed wound healing. The addictive drug nicotine is found in cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes (also known as vapes). It might be difficult to stop smoking, especially if you have mental health issues.
What is Nicotine?
The chemical nicotine, which is found in tobacco plants of the Nicotiana genus, is highly addictive. It can be smoked in cigarettes or cigars or inhaled through vaping devices. It’s also used in chewing or sniffing tobacco products, like dip, snuff, and smokeless tobacco. When nicotine enters the body, it quickly reaches the brain. It can be absorbed through the lungs when smoking, skin when using nicotine patches, or mouth and throat when using nicotine gum. After passing through the blood-brain barrier, it attaches to cholinergic receptors in the brain. These receptors normally respond to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which regulates breathing, heart rate, muscle movement, and cognitive functions like memory.
Once the receptors are activated by nicotine, they begin to expect it, so they crave it even after people stop smoking or vaping. It can make it difficult for them to quit, especially in situations that trigger their habit, such as after a meal or when they’re stressed out. Nicotine stimulates reward pathways in the brain and acts similarly to other drugs of abuse, including cocaine and heroin. It may be particularly reinforcing in those addicted to these other drugs for a long time or who had used them during early adolescence when their brains were still developing. It can lead to problems with mood, concentration, and memory.
How Does Nicotine Affect the Brain?
Nicotine is a stimulant that floods the brain’s reward circuits with a feel-good chemical called dopamine. It can lead to nicotine dependence, a psychological and physical addiction. People who become dependent on nicotine start to crave cigarettes and need them to function, and they may experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t smoke. Nicotine is instantly absorbed into the bloodstream after entering the body through the lungs when someone smokes a cigarette. It then reaches the brain within minutes and causes a brief feeling of pleasure that a craving for more can follow. The brain’s reward centers are a critical part of the limbic system, and long-term nicotine use can damage these structures. It can reduce the brain’s ability to handle stress, learn effectively and exhibit self-control. It can also cause problems with attention and memory.
Interestingly, nicotine also appears to strengthen the excitatory connections of neurons that make dopamine in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the brain’s reward center, making them more responsive to nicotine and other substances that stimulate the brain’s reward system. It is one reason why nicotine is so addictive. One of the effects of nicotine on the brain is enhancing synaptic plasticity, which helps us remember things. Specifically, it enhances the phosphorylation of a protein, which is important for learning and memory formation. It has been shown that acute nicotine administration can improve memory impairments resulting from sleep deprivation in healthy individuals.
How Does Nicotine Affect the Body?
Cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and vaping products all contain the chemical nicotine. It’s a highly addictive substance and can cause many physical health problems. When you smoke a cigarette, nicotine travels through the mouth and throat into the lungs, which are absorbed by the bloodstream. It takes just ten seconds for nicotine to reach the brain. When nicotine comes to the brain, it attaches to neural receptors previously reserved for acetylcholine and begins stimulating those neurons. This results in a release of dopamine, which makes you feel good. That’s why you keep smoking — the pleasure you get from nicotine keeps you returning for more and more.
Nicotine also stimulates the adrenal glands to increase the production of adrenaline. This’ flight or fight’ hormone can elevate heart rate, blood pressure and narrow the arteries, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Nicotine also causes the lungs to become more susceptible to infection and may increase the chance of developing asthma. People who begin using nicotine as children or teens are more likely to become addicted. It is partly because the brains of young people haven’t fully developed, making them more susceptible to addiction. In addition, nicotine can interfere with normal brain development and make it more difficult to quit smoking later in life.
How Can I Quit Smoking?
Smoking is a hard habit to stop, but it is possible. With the use of nicotine patches, lozenges, gum, or sprays, discuss smoking cessation programs and tools with your doctor. Set a date to quit smoking completely. Write it on your calendar, and tell a few friends so you will feel more committed. You can choose to gradually cut down your cigarette usage before your quit date or go “cold turkey.” Throw away all cigarettes and lighters, including those you keep in your car or desk at work. Wash your clothes and vacuum and shampoo your home to remove any lingering smoke smells.
Distract yourself during a craving by exercising, taking a long shower or calling a friend. Try self-hypnosis, yoga, deep breathing, or meditation if you have problems focusing. Many people smoke to relieve stress. Find new ways to unwind, such as deep-breathing exercises, walking, listening to soothing music, playing with a pet or getting a massage. Remind yourself of the immediate health benefits of quitting, such as a lower risk for heart disease and lung cancer. Also, think of the money you will save and the improved appearance you will gain. Finally, reward yourself for each day you manage to stay smoke-free. You can even put the money you would have spent on cigarettes in a jar and spend it later on something fun.