What is nicotine?
It’s also a powerful toxin, which is why you probably coughed your way through that first cigarette all those years ago.
Nicotine in the brain
Nicotine affects every part of the nervous system, including the pleasure centre of the brain.
A variety of different brain chemicals are altered each time you smoke. When smokers are asked why they use tobacco, they say:
Did you know?
When you inhale, it takes just seven seconds for nicotine to reach the brain.
Drugs that enter the brain rapidly tend to be more addictive than drugs which get in more slowly.
- smoking stimulates and increases concentration
- smoking helps them to relax and deal with stress.
As a smoker, you might smoke some cigarettes to wake yourself up (eg the first one in the morning) and others to help you relax or calm yourself down when stressed or bored.
Although nicotine is primarily a stimulant drug, it works differently in different areas of the brain. For example, it soothes the limbic system, one of our most important emotional centres.
Nicotine and dependency
Nicotine is an addictive substance, which means your body gets used to nicotine and comes to need a certain level to function normally each day.
Any less than this dose and you start to feel snappy and on edge and get an urge to smoke.
Few smokers start on 20 a day, but increase their habit over time.
The usual pattern is to find smoking unpleasant at first, but the body and brain quickly adapt and you start to experience its enjoyable qualities.
You will then find you need to smoke more to feel these effects.
Further into your addiction, you will smoke to avoid going into withdrawal between cigarettes.
Nicotine is one of the most dependency-inducing drugs. Even the good feelings you attribute to smoking, ie improved concentration, are really due to relief of the withdrawal effects that come on between cigarettes.
Although people’s dependency on nicotine varies widely, once you become ‘hooked’, nicotine is so addictive that if you start smoking again after a period of quitting, you quickly escalate up to your original habit again very rapidly – even it’s been years since your last puff.
It’s also why regular smokers can’t ‘become’ social smokers, because as your body adjusts to nicotine, it will need more.
Withdrawal symptoms and nicotine
A smoker’s nervous system becomes accustomed to functioning with nicotine.
When you stop smoking, the reduced nicotine intake will disturb the balance of the central nervous system, causing withdrawal symptoms.
The most common withdrawal symptoms are:
- cravings for tobacco
- increased appetite
- weight gain
- concentration problems
- depression or low mood
Fortunately, the majority of these symptoms tend to disappear after a few of weeks.
Some people may experience cravings, concentration problems and an increased appetite over a longer time period.
Depression after quitting
Many studies have found a link between depression and smoking, but there’s no consensus on why this is so.
Some suggest it’s the long-term effect of nicotine on the brain that causes depression, others that it’s the same genes and environmental factors that predispose a person to both mental illness and smoking.
For some people, smoking is a coping mechanism – a form of self-therapy.
A teenager who starts smoking may remain unaware of any tendency towards depression or anxiety until they come to quit.
In this way, nicotine ‘protects’ against these conditions, which means when you give up smoking, depression or anxiety can begin or worsen.
If so, they shouldn’t be seen as part of your withdrawal symptoms, and you should seek medical help and treatment.