One of the oldest drugs in humanity’s diet is also one of the most prevalent … and addictive.
Nicotine has been a part of the human diet for centuries. Most commonly found in tobacco, it acts as a stimulant that can be pleasurable to mammals … and apparently quite addictive.
Except that it’s not. Not exactly.
Administered alone, nicotine has weak reinforcing properties and is unlikely to cause addiction by itself. The catch is that few consume nicotine in an isolated state on a regular basis.
The combination of nicotine with Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) is what makes it addictive—and both of those are found in tobacco, which is where the vast majority of folks get exposed to the drug.
There’s a reason why nicotine has been around so long; it serves as both a stimulant and a relaxant.
To produce a stimulating effect, smokers take short, quick puffs, which limit the amount of nicotine in the blood. Such behavior engages norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain and can lead to temporary improvements in mental and/or physical actions.
To use nicotine as a relaxant, the idea is to take longer, deeper puffs, which elevates the level of the drug in the blood and increases serotonin and opiate activity in the brain, which can have a calming and dulling effect.
Either way, when consumed in the form of a cigarette, nicotine hits the brain within seconds and releases neurotransmitters and hormones that many feel increase concentration and alertness.
Indeed, nicotine activates the Mesolimbic pathway in the brain, the so-called “reward system” circuitry that regulates the chemicals that produce sensations of pleasure and euphoria.
In addition, some smokers find that nicotine contributes to weight loss by suppressing the appetite. Those who stop smoking often experience weight gain.
And finally, while anti-smoking laws may have limited the places available for smokers to congregate, by doing so they have made it even more of a social activity. A smoker may be even less inclined to quit because it eliminates opportunities to take a relaxing puff with fellow smokers.
Of course, there are also a ton of reasons to quit smoking, notably for improved health. Smoking is estimated to increase the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by two to four times, lung cancer by 23 times (men) and 13 times (women), and lung disease by 12-13 times.
Smoking also causes lung cancer and coronary heart disease, and it is associated with numerous other negative health effects. In fact, the Center for Disease Control estimates that nearly one out of every five deaths that occurs in the United States can be traced to the adverse effects from cigarette smoking.
But despite the health issues, the high cost of smoking (thanks in part to taxes) and increased awareness of the dangers, it is also extremely hard to quit nicotine—harder, perhaps, than truly addictive drugs like heroin according to some studies.
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