It’s universally accepted that smoking is harmful to the body. We’ve heard time and again of a variety of toxins inside cigarettes, ranging from tar to ammonia to carbon monoxide, but none of them is considered as harmful as nicotine. Why so? What does it do that makes it so bad for our body? Is it really THAT harmful?
What Is Nicotine And What Is Its Impact On The Brain?
Nicotine is a potent stimulant and an alkaloid, which is present in tobacco. On an average, a cigarette contains about 12 mg of nicotine per cigarette, with a range between 8 mg and 20 mg, depending on the brand.
When tobacco is smoked through cigarettes or cigars, nicotine is absorbed into the blood through the wall lining of the small air sacs in the lungs. When sniffed or chewed, it is absorbed through the mucous membranes of the nose or mouth. Irrespective of the route, nicotine reaches the brain within 10 seconds of entering your body. Once it reaches the brain, it quickly releases chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters, in turn affect breathing, heart rate, and produce feelings of pleasure and reward. This feeling of pleasure, unfortunately, is temporary. Shortly after you finish smoking a cigarette, the neurotransmitters stop their magic and your body starts crave another cigarette. It is the craving for this feeling of pleasure or release that causes smoking addiction or nicotine dependence.
The story doesn’t end here.
Once someone is dependent on nicotine, the brain begins to adapt to the chemical. The neural pathways in the brain begin to link cigarettes to day-to- day actions that occur in the real world for instance stress, anxiety, socializing, coffee breaks, finishing work, driving and so on. As time goes on, the brain reinforces this behaviour, inducing cravings with the external environment. For instance, the smell of coffee, the act of driving or the completion of a meeting could make a person reach out for a cigarette.
Defining Nicotine Dependence
The important thing to remember about why is nicotine dependence or addiction is so difficult to tackle is that nicotine has different effects on different people’s bodies. For instance, some people can get addicted with just a single cigarette and some people are able to remain social smokers. One of the major factors that pushes a person towards nicotine dependence is the use of tobacco for release of emotions or stress, instead of mere recreation. Smokers who reach out for a cigarette when they feel stressed, lonely or anxious are at a greater risk for dependence.
Breaking The Myths About Nicotine
To put it plainly, nicotine in reasonable quantities, is not responsible for damage to health. It is merely a stimulant that is also found in the leaves of plants such as tomato, green pepper, eggplant, potato, and so on. By itself, it doesn’t cause cancer, lung or heart disease. The tar, the toxic gases and the carcinogens that are released from burning tobacco when you smoke are responsible for all the harmful effects.
Nicotine is harmful purely because it can cause addiction to tobacco. People smoke for nicotine but they die from the tar, summarized Michael Russell, the man who developed nicotine gum.
Why Is It So Difficult To Quit?
The best way to manage nicotine addiction is to quit. The good news is that nicotine withdrawal is not difficult to manage. After quitting, the symptoms of withdrawal peak for two to three days and then taper off in a week. The bigger challenge is to beat the long-term cravings and get the brain adjusted to a normal life again.
The road to recovery begins with identifying triggers and behaviours that are associated with smoking. These triggers are physical and psychological stimuli around you that remind your brain that you need to smoke. Seek and find social support to help you override these behaviours. Experts also suggest high-intensity exercise and distraction activities such as taking up a new hobby can condition the brain to avoid cravings. Chewing gum or sucking on oral lozenges can also provide gratification. Identify stimulant-like activities that give you a rush without leaving an impact on your body.
The best way to prepare for a nicotine-free life is to understand why you crave for smoking and be armed against it.