Nicotine is a psychoactive drug that is experienced sometimes as a stimulant, sometimes as a relaxant. Found in the greatest concentration in the tobacco plant, it is also found in trace quantities in eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peppers, and a variety of other plants. Nicotine makes up from 0.3 to 0.5 percent (by weight) of the tobacco plant.
Nicotine can be consumed in a number of ways. Its effects are felt soonest when inhaling smoke from burning tobacco, but preparations of tobacco can also be chewed, sucked, snorted, or otherwise placed in contact with the blood stream (addicts have been known to slit between their toes and pack the space with chew). Nicotine can also be found in electronic cigarettes (devices that aerosolize synthetic or pre-extracted nicotine), specialized gums and lozenges (oral absorption), and patches (with which a user absorbs nicotine through his or her skin).
Pharmacologically, repeated studies have found that nicotine is more addictive than heroin and cocaine. Nicotine increases the activity of rewards pathway brain receptors in charge of dopamine (euphoria, relaxation). Other compounds in tobacco smoke additionally alter processes that typically break down dopamine, serotonin (well-being, happiness), and norepinephrine (similar to adrenaline). In dealing with these changes, the brain performs a number of compensatory maneuvers, resultantly making the brain’s rewards pathway more sensitive (heroin and cocaine make the rewards pathway less sensitive). This alteration can last many months, which helps make nicotine (especially with tobacco coadministration) an extremely difficult addiction to break.
Am I Addicted?
The amount of nicotine required to create an addiction varies between individuals. Some people are hooked after one cigarette. Others require a whole pack. Others can smoke off and on without ever experiencing a craving (though these cases are rare). Ultimately, Nicotine addiction is diagnosable through its withdrawal symptoms. If you feel multiple of the following symptoms, and have been in recent contact with nicotine, you may be experiencing nicotine withdrawal (implying addiction):
Pharmacologically, repeated studies have found that nicotine is more addictive than heroin and cocaine.
Effects of Nicotine Addiction
Increased incidence of erectile dysfunction
Increased incidence of osteoporosis
Increased likelihood of infertility
Increased incidence of premature birth/birth defects
Increased incidence of lung disease, lung and other cancers, emphysema, pneumonia, and bronchitis
Increased susceptibility to cocaine addiction
Nicotine is one of the most difficult addictions to escape. Most addicts make multiple failed attempts before they successfully manage to stay away from nicotine products. Nicotine replacement therapy statistically decreases the incidence of relapse among smokers. Strong support groups, either institutional or friend/family based, also help keep individuals accountable. At the center of any attempt to quit nicotine must be perseverance. But with dedication, support, and therapy, even severely dependent individuals are capable of escaping nicotine addiction.
1. Dan Howard. “Plant Sources of Nicotine.” http://www.ehow.com/list_6898161_plant-sources-nicotine.html
2. “Effects of Nicotine.” http://www.ucanquit2.org/facts/nicotine.aspx
3. “How to Quit Smoking, Again.” http://www.bettermedicine.com/article/how-to-quit-smoking-again
4. John R. Polito. “Nicotine Addiction 101.” http://whyquit.com/whyquit/linksaaddiction.html
5. Sandra Blakeslee. “Nicotine: Harder to Kick… than Heroin.” http://www.nytimes.com/1987/03/29/magazine/nicotine-harder-to-kickthan-heroin.html