When tobacco smoke or vapour is inhaled, nicotine is absorbed through the mucosal linings in the nose, mouth and lungs and travels through the bloodstream to the brain. When sniffed, snussed (via pouches) or chewed it is absorbed through membranes in the mouth and nose. It then travels through the body, via the bloodstream to the brain. It is also possible to absorb it through the skin.
When smoked nicotine reaches the brain in about seven seconds2. It is about the same when vaped, around 8-20 seconds. Nicotine reaches the central nervous system in about 3-5 minutes when tobacco is chewed.
Neuroscience still hasn’t fully understood how nicotine affects the brain or how addiction works but more is being learnt all the time.
Is there a high?
Some smokers claim that the feeling of dizziness or light-headedness after they haven’t smoked for a while is like a “high” – but when you think about it – it isn’t is it? It’s just dizzy and you can get exactly the same feeling by spinning around on the spot for ten seconds.
Does nicotine relieve anxiety or make you feel depressed?
Some people claim that smoking helps with depression and anxiety but if this were true then surely smokers would be less anxious and less depressed than non-smokers? Yet research shows the exact opposite – that they are much more anxious and more depressed than non-smokers. Tragically there’s no doubt that a good portion of people who live with depression and anxiety are drawn into smoking by the flawed belief that nicotine might help them handle their condition – that’s all part of the brainwashing.
How does nicotine affect dopamine?
Humans are programmed to seek out dopamine elevating activities to ensure good health, happiness and longevity/survival. Examples are making love, eating, listening to music, hugging children/animals/your partner/a friend, socialising, and exercising. These are natural/normal/healthy activities/behaviours that the normally functioning “reward system” is designed to re-enforce.
Back when smoking was at its peak, we didn’t know how nicotine and other drugs affected the brain. Since then we have learned a great deal about a function of the brain known colloquially as reward pathways.
In the brain dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter – a chemical released by neurons (nerve cells) to send signals to other nerve cells. The reward pathways play a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated, or re-enforced behaviour. Can you imagine the disruption that can be caused to this natural, instinctive process by the introduction of a highly addictive drug, one which appears to relieve the discomfort created by the first dose, and every subsequent dose?
In 2019 one of the world’s leading academics in the field of nicotine addiction, Professor Robert West stated publicly, “Nicotine causes dopamine release by nerve cells that make up the “reward system” in the brain, including the nucleus accumbens– a part of the brain involved in learning to do things. The dopamine release tells the brain to pay attention to the situation and what the smoker was just doing – and do the same thing next time they’re in that same situation. So, a link is forged between the impulse to smoke and situations in which smoking normally happens”. Importantly, Professor West went on to add, “Crucially, the smoker doesn’t have to feel any pleasure or enjoyment for this to work.”
A smoker’s first experience of nicotine is normally at worst extremely unpleasant, and at best, a little unpleasant. For the sake of understanding this, smokers have to ignore the feelings aroused by the circumstances surrounding their first cigarette; the peer pressure & praise, the feeling of rebelliousness, the feeling of fitting in, the sense of appearing stylish, sophisticated, or macho. None of those are caused by the introduction of nicotine to the body, they’re all to do with the environment.
How does nicotine produce a feeling of pleasure?
So, most smokers remember the physical effect of their first cigarettes as being unpleasant and this alone disproves any notion that nicotine’s initial introduction to the body and brain caused “pleasure”. Whatever impact nicotine has on dopamine levels when first introduced to the body – it’s certainly not pleasurable. In fact, most peoples’ first cigarette is so unpleasant and unrewarding it convinces them that they could never become addicted. The reason smokers develop a deep-seated belief that smoking IS pleasurable is explained by Professor West perfectly.
Nicotine withdrawal is the result of the first ever cigarette a nicotine addict smoked. It is momentarily “relieved” by the next cigarette. The brain concludes, non-consciously, “next time you feel nicotine withdrawal – do that again!”. In other words, the behaviour of lighting a cigarette in response to experiencing nicotine withdrawal is reinforced every time a smoker lights a cigarette regardless of the fact that the next cigarette will also cause nicotine withdrawal.
Whether a smoker is in a happy situation, a concentration situation, a sad situation, a stress situation, a relaxing situation, a boring situation, or a lonely situation they simultaneously experience nicotine withdrawal, and respond by lighting a cigarette, thereby immediately feeling better than a moment before and oblivious to the fact that that cigarette will perpetuate nicotine withdrawal once it is smoked .
It’s no wonder they think cigarettes help them to be happy or to concentrate, or to cope with sadness and stress, and to help them relax or cope with boredom or loneliness! It’s got nothing to do with genuine pleasure or genuine improvement of mood. And every single time they light a cigarette in one of those situations – the brain concludes, non-consciously, “next time that happens – do that again!”.
Non-smokers don’t have to deal with any of the mental and physical aggravation of being addicted to nicotine. They don’t suffer nicotine poisoning, nicotine withdrawal or the aberrational/unnatural impact nicotine has on dopamine and their behaviour.
Smoking damages your heart and your blood circulation, increasing the risk of conditions such as coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease (damaged blood vessels) and cerebrovascular disease (damaged arteries that supply blood to your brain).
Once in the brain it mimics acetycholine a natural neurotransmitter which naturally occurs in the brain activating particular types of acetycholine receptors.
Acetycholine is known to help maintain healthy respiration, heart function, muscle movement and cognitive function such as memory.
Nicotine increases adrenaline which in turn increases blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate4.