Nicotine Guide

If you ask smokers why they smoke, commonly, they will say because they enjoy it. They will usually say it calms them down, or stimulates them, aids them with stress, or that they've smoked for so long that it's simply routine. It's not often that they will just tell you they have a nicotine addiction. If they do acknowledge nicotine as the driving reason they smoke, they usually won't know very much about why nicotine is addictive, or much else about it.

Seeing as cigarette smoke is something smokers inhale every day, it seems odd we don't know much about the main, driving ingredient in it. This guide aims to help with that. 

Nicotine is an alkaloid. It is also a parasympathomimetic stimulant contained in parts of nightshade plants. If something is parasympathomimetic, it means it affects the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our brain that is responsible for involuntary actions that occur after feeding, urination, sexual arousal, defecation, and others.
Most people think nicotine is only found in the tobacco plant, but it is actually very widespread. Nightshade plants will usually contain somewhat high amounts of it, but it’s simple to detect nicotine in other common fruits, vegetables, and herbs, such as:

  • Potatoes

  • Tomatoes

  • Aubergines

  • Celery

  • Field horsetail

  • Milkweed

  • Papaya

  • Cauliflower

  • Peppers

You may be surprised to find that many of us ingest nicotine on a daily basis. These amounts are of course, much less than a regular smoker would inhale on a regular day though. 

Nicotine History & It's Use

Tobacco (and nicotine) was used ritually, as part of the sacred rites of the Mayans (and Incas, Aztecs, and Natives) After the discovery of the New World, tobacco (and nicotine) use spread throughout Europe.

Interestingly, nicotine was used for hundreds of years as an insecticide – the first recorded use of nicotine for this was in France in 1763. Farmers may have known about insecticidal properties of nicotine way before that because the plants developed it as a way of self-defense against predatory animals and bugs.

In recent years, nicotine used as an insecticide has declined as we've learned it can interfere with pollinators, like bees. In low doses it won’t kill the bees, but it can affect their ability to extract nectar and strongly hinder their memory and orientation.

Nicotine & Health

As we've mentioned, nicotine is a stimulant, which stimulates the centers of the mind, inducing euphoria and making smokers more alert. This statement is only somewhat true. The side effects of nicotine have two phases. In low doses, it acts as a stimulant, while in high doses, it can act as a relaxer. These effects are known as the psychodynamic effects of nicotine.

The ways nicotine can affect the rest of the body are diverse. It slightly raises blood pressure temporarily, and heart rate. It also leads to insulin resistance. That means that smokers tend to have higher than normal insulin levels in them, which can lead to a prediabetic state sometimes. People who suffer from diabetes are encouraged to quit smoking since that would allow them to control their diabetes more easily.

Nicotine & the Heart

As you now know, nicotine is a stimulant. It's normal to conclude that it will result in changes in blood pressure and heart rate. If we're talking about short-term side effects, this is actually somewhat true. Nicotine encourages the release of noradrenaline. That means small, temporary spikes in heart rate and blood pressure are to be expected. These increases do not last long and vanish as soon as 10 minutes after extinguishing a cigarette. Some studies actually suggest that long-term smokers tend to have a lower than average blood pressure than people who never smoked.

The evidence is far from conclusive, but scientists have been looking hard into the relationship between nicotine and cardiovascular diseases and, so far, can’t decide that nicotine alone has any huge effects on the blood vessels or heart. Though, it is safe to say that people with pre-existing heart problems should avoid nicotine in all its forms, as it could make their symptoms worse.

Is Nicotine Bad For Health?

It would be silly to suggest that nicotine is good for the body, but in its pure state, it’s way less dangerous than many of us may believe. The effects can be compared to caffeine. Slightly stimulating, but but not life-threatening.

Nicotine got a very bad image because it was always looked at through the lens of smoking. Very few studies have been done to find out how nicotine, on it's own, affects the human body. Although, times are changing and researchers are looking into whether nicotine could be used to treat certain medical conditions.

So far, studies have been done in the following areas:

  • Nicotine and ADHD – nicotine has been found to reduc some symptoms in patients with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, moreso in those who are not smokers.

  • Nicotine is a neuroprotector – through stimulation of nicotinic cholinergic receptors in the brain, nicotine can restrain acute inflammation. Also, it acts as an estrogen blocker, which is beneficial for men who are trying to regulate their estrogen levels.

  • Nicotine and Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Tourette’s – the fact that smokers suffer less from neurodegenerative diseases has fueled research into whether nicotine might be considered as a treatment for those conditions. So far, studies suggest that nicotine, by acting on nicotinic receptors in the brain, can improve cognitive performance and mental abilities in patients diagnosed with these diseases.

  • Nicotine reduces inflammation – it’s currently researched whether a nicotine therapy could be beneficial to people suffering from acute rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Nicotine promotes tissue healing – nicotine promotes revascularization and helps skin heal faster. The best results are observed with nicotine patches applied topically.

  • Niacin boosts good cholesterol – niacin (also called nicotinic acid) is a close relative of nicotine and a vitamin falling into a group of B vitamins (B3). It boosts good cholesterol and lowers triglycerides, and reduces atherosclerosis.

Does Nicotine Cause Cancer?

Most people assume that nicotine causes cancer. They believe that lung cancer and oral cancers are triggered by nicotine. Their thought process follows a familiar path – smoking causes cancer – cigarettes have nicotine – so, nicotine causes cancer. This opinion is so widespread that, in a study with a sample of nearly 3,000 smokers, 65% of them believed that nicotine directly causes lung cancer and a massive 71% believed the same for oral cancers.

In reality, there is no definite evidence that nicotine itself causes any type of cancer. Information from a Lung Health Study indicates that, while smoking is directly linked to cancer, nicotine replacement therapy products don't have the same results. Other studies also confirm that nicotine doesn’t increase chances of cancer forming.

This doesn’t mean that nicotine and cancer can’t be linked. Due to its revascularization properties and the fact that it encourages capillary blood vessel growth, nicotine can increase the growth of existing tumors. Studies on mice show that nicotine can cause a high rate (40%) of tumor recurrences after the first tumors have been successfully treated or removed.

Nicotine Addiction

The worst aspect of nicotine is that it’s addictive and forms habits. It binds to specific receptors in the brain, the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. There, it triggers the production of neurotransmitter, the chemicals in the brain that relay communication between neurons.

Nicotine addiction affects several neurotransmitters:

  • Dopamine – the brain’s ‘reward’ chemical, central to the development of many addictions. In essence, dopamine release makes smokers associate an action with something pleasurable, contributing to the reinforcement of the addiction.

  • Serotonin – a mood-altering neurotransmitter that is often associated with feelings of pleasure and euphoria.

  • GABA – a neuro-inhibitor that acts on neurons in a way that helps reduce stress and combat anxiety.

  • Noradrenalin – a transmitter that’s responsible for the fight-or-flight response and puts the organism in the state of heightened alert.

When the nicotine is absorbed into the system, it makes its way to the brain quickly (about 10 to 20 seconds). Then it triggers a various chemical reactions. For this reason, becoming addicted to nicotine does not take very long.

There are many sides to addiction and methods by which we measure the addiction. You would be surprised to know that nicotine ranks highly and is considered very addictive by scientists.

There are five spots where addiction is measured. The following metrics were developed by doctors Benowitz and Henningfield and are useful when comparing common drugs to each other.

  • Dependence – difficulty quitting, relapse rate, subjective rating of need.

  • Tolerance – how much of the substance is needed to satisfy a craving.

  • Reinforcement – the property of a substance to make users use it over and over again.

  • Intoxication – the effect of the substance on the user.

  • Withdrawal – how intensive and common withdrawal symptoms are.

Although a nicotine high is not really comparable to cocaine or heroin, it’s still strong enough to make people come back for more. Nicotine has the highest usage, when compared to other drugs. 

The cycle of nicotine addiction wouldn’t be as concerning if other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars were as benign as it was. Cigarette smoke contains over 60 known carcinogens, nicotine addiction needs should be viewed in a different light. That is often easier said than done. Smokers who try to quit go through heavy withdrawals that usually draw them right back into their addiction.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Intense nicotine cravings

  • Irritability and mood swings

  • Insomnia

  • Anxiety

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Nausea

  • Headaches

  • Depression

  • Tingling in hands and feet

These symptoms may look intimidating but should not stop you from trying to quit. There are many traditional nicotine replacement therapies available and if you’re planning on quitting, you should look into them.

Vaping & Nicotine

More and more people are switching to vaping to try to ditch their smoking habit. And, they are succeeding. Some studies find that electronic cigarettes are even more effective than traditional nicotine replacement therapies. That’s also taking into account the amount of nicotine in a given vape juice.

Vapes do have nicotine, but the important thing to note is that it’s optional. Most vape juices available have options that only contain propylene glycol/vegetable glycerin and flavoring so vaping without nicotine is certainly possible. Usually, that is the goal; to get down to no nicotine in the end.

Mild Nicotine Overdose

Most smokers have experienced forms of nicotine overdose. While they certainly aren't pleasant, they are also not a cause for panic. When a nicotine overdose happens, it's often from having one too many cigarettes, or a few too many puffs from a vape in a short time.

The symptoms of nicotine overdose are:

  • Nausea

  • Dizziness

  • Headaches

  • Abdominal cramps

  • Vision and hearing changes

While experiencing this, it's important to stay away from nicotine for a bit. Mild nicotine overdose symptoms often go away in about an hour. However, if they continue past that, or if there's loss of consciousness, it may not be an overdose, it could be nicotine poisoning.

Nicotine Poisoning

Nicotine poisoning is a very significant matter that can even be fatal. The most risky groups are elderly people and kids, so if you vape or smoke, be sure to keep your substances out of reach. Nicotine poisoning symptoms include:

  • Convulsions

  • Vomiting

  • Strong blood pressure spikes

  • Strong arrhythmia

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Nausea

  • Muscle spasms

If you, or anyone near you, is experiencing these signs after either smoking or handling pure liquid nicotine, it’s important you contact the paramedics as soon as possible. When it comes to the fatal dose of nicotine, there's a lot of debate. For a long time, it was thought that dose was 60 mg, which would make nicotine equal with cyanide regarding toxicity. However, evidence didn’t add up because many poisoning cases included far larger doses, yet without fatality.

Scientist, Bernd Meyer, decided to look into the 60 mg claims and he discovered that they lead back to a pharmacology textbook published in 1906 by a German toxicologist, Rudolf Kobert. His unsettled research methods lead him to find that the LD50 (meaning that it kills roughly half of those exposed to that amount) of nicotine is 60 mg and the claim continued for around 100 years.

Newer research suggests that the plausible LD50 of nicotine is somewhere between 500 and 1000 mg, which is a lot higher than the previous estimate.