Addiction Awareness

Addiction, trauma and mental health

What is nicotine and how does it effect a person?

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Nicotine is the most addictive and psychoactive chemical in tobacco, a plant native to the New World. Early European explorers learned to smoke its leaves from indigenous peoples who had been using tobacco for hundreds of years. They took tobacco back to Europe, where it became immensely popular. Tobacco became a major source of income for the American colonies and later for the United States. Advances in cigarette-making technology caused a boom in cigarette smoking in the early 1900s. Before the early twentieth century, most people who smoked had used pipes, cigars, or chewing tobacco.

Pure nicotine is a colourless liquid that turns brown and smells like tobacco when exposed to air. Nicotine can be absorbed through the skin, the lining of the mouth and nose, and the moist tissues lining the lungs. Cigarettes are the most efficient nicotine delivery system. Once tobacco smoke is inhaled, nicotine reaches the brain in less than 15 seconds. Since people who smoke pipes and cigars do not inhale, they absorb nicotine more slowly. Nicotine in chewing tobacco and snuff is absorbed through the mucous membranes lining the mouth and nasal passages. In 2002 a new smokeless tobacco product was test-marketed in the United States. Called Arriva, it is compressed tobacco powder about the size of a vitamin pill that is placed between the cheek and gum until it dissolves completely. The nicotine it contains is also absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth.

Nicotine is both a stimulant and a sedative. It is a psychoactive drug, meaning that it works in the brain, alters brain chemistry, and changes mood. Once tobacco smoke is inhaled, nicotine passes rapidly through the linings of the lungs and into the blood. It quickly circulates to the brain where it indirectly increases the supply of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that affects mood. Dopamine is normally released in response to pleasurable sensations. Nicotine, like cocaine or heroin, artificially stimulates the release of dopamine. This release accounts for the pleasurable sensation that most smokers feel almost as soon as they light up a cigarette. Nicotine also decreases anger and increases the efficiency of a person’s performance on long, dull tasks.

At the same time nicotine is affecting the brain, it also stimulates the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are small, pea-sized pieces of tissue located above each kidney. They produce several hormones, one of which is epinephrine, also called adrenaline. Under normal circumstances, adrenaline is released in response to stress or a perceived threat. It is sometimes called the “fight or flight” hormone, because it prepares the body for action. When adrenaline is released, blood pressure, heart rate, blood flow, and oxygen use increase. Glucose, a simple form of sugar used by the body, floods the body to provide extra energy to muscles. The overall effect of the release of these hormones is strain on the cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) system. Stressed this way many times a day for many years, the body responds by increasing the build-up of plaque, a sticky substance, in the blood vessels. These deposits of plaque significantly increase a person’s risk of stroke or heart attack.

Most people begin smoking between the ages of 12 and 20. Surprisingly few people start smoking as adults over 21. Adolescents who smoke tend to begin as casual smokers, out of rebelliousness or a need for social acceptance. Dependence on nicotine develops rapidly, however; one study suggests that 85–90% of adolescents who smoke four or more cigarettes become regular smokers. Nicotine is so addictive that being tobacco-free soon feels uncomfortable. In addition, smokers quickly develop tolerance to nicotine. Tolerance is a condition that occurs when the body needs a larger and larger dose of a substance to produce the same effect. For smokers, tolerance to nicotine means more frequent and more rapid smoking. Soon most smokers develop physical withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop smoking. Users of other forms of tobacco experience the same effects; however, the delivery of nicotine is slower and the effects may not be as pronounced.


August 30, 2010 Posted by | addiction, dependency, nicotine, tobacco | , , , | 2 Comments