Legal drugs – nicotine (and why do we smoke pesticides?)

If you were handed a pesticide to inhale, would you take it? Are you sure?

Last time we looked at one of the three legal, widely available, psychoactive drugs that billions of people worldwide use daily; that was caffeine. Another one of those is nicotine, which we’ll look at today.

Nicotine, the oldest pesticide in current use, has also been used as a poison of choice in many actual and fictional murders; 60 milligrams is all it takes to kill an adult human being.

We generally get nicotine via tobacco. Tobacco smoke contains over 50 carcinogens and other chemicals implicated in heart disease, stroke and a shorter life expectancy, yet many willingly smoke it.

Why?

Unlike caffeine, nicotine is one of the most addictive substances in the world, even at low doses, and the younger that people start smoking, the more likely they are to become addicted.

Smoking itself contributes to nicotine’s addictiveness because it’s delivered to the brain within seconds.

For any addict certain environmental cues become very strongly associated with the use of the drug; these turn into triggers that lead to craving and continued use. How does nicotine do this?

First, take acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that some brain cells use to communicate with each other.

When a brain cell releases acetylcholine, the acetylcholine can attach to acetylcholine receptors on other brain cells and activate those cells in turn.

Next, take nicotine. It can also attach to and stimulate acetylcholine receptors, therefore putting them in overdrive and making a person feel more alert and vigilant.

But that doesn’t explain all of it. It’s when nicotine binds to the acetylcholine receptors in our dopamine reward centre that the trouble starts because that action stimulates excessive dopamine release.

Dopamine is not, as many think, a pleasure hormone; in fact it comes before pleasure. Dopamine both stimulates wanting or craving and signals the brain to remember an associated stimulus for next time.

These environmental stimuli (such as the smell of smoke, going into a pub, a cup of coffee, etc) become ‘triggers’. Eventually, these triggers stimulate dopamine release even without nicotine so the person experiences the drive to find nicotine from triggers alone.

The longer this cycle repeats, the stronger the associations become. Pretty soon, it seems impossible to resist the urge to smoke, and an addiction is born. Happily, if a person wants it, nicotine addiction can be broken.

Jacqui wrote this 400-word article for the Jersey Evening Post, 31 August 2020.

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Jacqui Carrel helps people with addictions. You can book a free, no-obligation call to see if we can work together on your issue.

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