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Out of all the psychoactive substances that are widely available, legal, and used on a daily basis by millions of people all around the world, nicotine leads the charge in being the most controversial and misunderstood. 

This is, of course, caused by the fact that for centuries, the primary ingestion method of the substance has been smoking. The cigarette habit is known to cause lung cancer, cardiovascular issues, and a whole myriad of other deadly health conditions. Smokers would often choose getting their “fix” in spite of tobacco being so harmful due to the addictive properties of its key alkaloid – nicotine. 

But is nicotine bad for you on its own? Until relatively recently, it has been inextricably linked with cigarettes and all that comes with them. However, with the rise of vapes, heated tobacco devices, and other alternatives to smoking, this connection has gotten much weaker.

Therefore, the disadvantages and benefits of nicotine as a completely separate entity are worth revisiting. The answers, which we will dive deep into in the investigation below, may surprise you. 

A Brief History of Nicotine Use 

In order to fully understand and appreciate the intricacies of nicotine as a substance, we need to first explore its history. More specifically, the history of tobacco usage, as nicotine-containing alternatives have only recently entered the mainstream. 

The Rise of Tobacco 

It’s impossible to narrow down exactly when nicotine entered the human bloodstream for the very first time, but we do know that tobacco has been around for thousands of years. Native Americans started cultivating it as early as 6,000 BC. It wasn’t until 1 BC, though, that certain Indigenous tribes first smoked tobacco for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. 

Tobacco is a plant native to the Americas. Europeans discovered it in 1492, after Christopher Columbus arrived in the “New World,” and was presented with dried tobacco leaves by the natives. The first known European smoker was Rodrigo de Jerez, who was one of the first colonists to observe smoking and picked up the habit himself later on. Curiously enough, the sight of Jerez puffing on cigars was so frightening to the early settlers that the Holy Inquisition arrested him for smoking. He spent 7 years in prison for his “sins.” 

Throughout the 16th century, tobacco was introduced to most European countries. Doctors back then claimed that smoking or sniffing tobacco has health benefits, a trend that lasted well into the 20th century – in the US, due to heavy lobbying from tobacco companies, cigarettes were prescribed until the mid-1950s. 

Falling Smoking Rates and Tobacco Alternatives 

Halfway through the 20th century, everything changed when numerous studies came out, proving the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Since then, smoking rates have dropped significantly. In 1965 in the US, 42% of the population were self-declared smokers. Today, the smoking rate sits at 18%. For comparison, in the UK, 70% of men and 50% of women smoked cigarettes in 1970. In 2022, smokers accounted for 14.6% of the male population and 11.2% of women. 

So, how does nicotine play into all this? As we already mentioned, tobacco has been pretty much the only available product containing nicotine on the market for centuries. This has begun to change after it became clear that smoking cigarettes is one of the most harmful habits a person can ever take up. 

The tobacco replacement industry slowly, but surely introduced new quitting aids to the market. One of the most popular ones to this day remains the nicotine chewing gum, released in 1984. A few years later, nicotine patches hit the market, too. 

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, vaping became the new “cool kid on the block.” Electronic cigarettes have proven to be a huge hit among smokers who are trying to quit. In the early 2020s, heated tobacco contributed to pulling people away from traditional cigarettes. With each passing year, both new alternatives and iterations on existing devices enter the market, further diminishing smoking rates.

timeline of tobacco and nicotine usage

How Nicotine Affects Our Bodies 

While smoking rates have undeniably dropped across the board, nicotine usage hasn’t necessarily followed the same trajectory. This is primarily because of the already mentioned introduction of new, alternative ways to take in this alkaloid. 

Let’s be clear here: being addicted to a substance is not the optimal condition for any individual. Most people who turn to nicotine-containing products that aren’t cigarettes do so to continue sustaining their addiction. 

We know that nicotine is extremely addictive, but how exactly does it interact with the human body, and what are its main effects on our daily lives? 

Stimulating Properties of Nicotine 

Nicotine is a well-known stimulant of the central nervous system. What does that mean in practice? 

The alkaloid “impersonates” a vital neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine. It is pivotal in regulating muscle movement, heart rate, and enhancing memory. 

Once nicotine enters your body, be it from smoking or otherwise, it rapidly travels to the brain via the bloodstream. There, it connects with receptors that are typically reserved for acetylcholine, effectively flooding the neural network with an onslaught of signals that induce various physiological reactions.

This, in turn, provokes heightened neural activity, resulting in an adrenaline rush. This stimulation triggers the body to release glucose and raise heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.

Sedative Properties of Nicotine 

On top of the stimulation that this substance provides, there is another, less known side to nicotine. Namely, it can also act as a sedative agent through the release of beta-endorphins – proteins which are responsible for reducing anxiety. 

Due to these two rather conflicting interactions between nicotine and our bodies, the ultimate effect one can feel after consuming the alkaloid heavily depends on the individual. Some people report feeling more relaxed, whereas others claim that nicotine makes them more jittery and anxious overall. 

Why Is Nicotine Addictive? 

The body’s reaction to nicotine is fleeting, which results in the development of the habitual use of nicotine products, ultimately leading to addiction. Aside from the central nervous system, nicotine also interacts with dopamine pathways in your brain’s reward system, leading to brief sensations of enjoyment and gratification. As the ongoing consumption of nicotine ensues, your reward system will adapt to anticipate regular doses of nicotine.

Regardless of whether you consume it to reduce your stress or anger levels, or want to feel the “nicotine rush” to help you focus or boost your energy, your experience of nicotine’s effects on your body will diminish over time. As you get used to the regular doses entering your bloodstream, you’ll develop tolerance that will require you to steadily increase your dosage in order to feel the desired benefits. Simply put, this mechanism drives nicotine addiction in individuals. 

Is Nicotine Bad For You? 

a man holding his hand up in front of his face

There is no denying that addiction to anything is a bad thing. Having an unhealthy, dependent relationship with any substance or behaviour can ultimately be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. But it’s important to keep in mind that people can get addicted to pretty much anything. Even things that are generally considered healthy, like exercise, can cause some pretty serious harm if pursued compulsively and excessively. The same goes for nicotine – a lifelong habit can definitely result in high blood pressure and a number of other cardiovascular issues. In that area, there’s no question – a nicotine addiction can be harmful. 

But is nicotine bad for you in general? This is where it gets a little tricky. As it turns out, nicotine as a substance can have a great deal of beneficial effects that aren’t often discussed due to how stigmatised it is after being exclusively associated with cigarettes for centuries. 

The Harmfulness of Modern Tobacco Products 

It is that association with tobacco that generated so much bad reputation for nicotine. When you break it down, it becomes clear that the smoking-related disease and death come down to the dozens of other harmful chemicals in mass-produced tobacco products, not nicotine. 

Each cigarette contains over 600 ingredients. That turns into over 7000 different chemicals when combusted. These different compounds smokers inhale and exhale include: 

  • Tar: highly toxic, used for paving roads 
  • Arsenic: commonly found in rat poison 
  • Butane: found in lighter fluid 
  • Carbon monoxide: deadly, found in car exhaust fumes  
  • Lead: found in batteries 
  • Ammonia: household cleaner, deadly when consumed 
  • Formaldehyde: embalming fluid 

We could go on and on about the toxicity of tobacco smoke, but the key thing to remember here is the fact that these chemicals, tar in particular, are primarily responsible for causing lung cancer and other horrible conditions in long-time smokers. The main danger of smoking comes from tobacco, not nicotine, although the latter does get people hooked on cigarettes in the first place. 

what's in a cigarette

Nicotine Benefits: The Surprising Truth 

We’ve already established that nicotine does not contribute to the development of all the devastating side effects of a long-lasting cigarette habit. There are legitimate risks that come with using nicotine, such as high blood pressure and certain heart conditions, but these are not unique to this substance. 

In fact, those side effects can also be attributed to the lack of exercise, following the “Standard American Diet,” and many other lifestyle choices that aren’t as heavily stigmatised as nicotine use. However, as opposed to the examples we’ve listed above, ingesting nicotine in moderation, sourced from non-tobacco products, carries certain benefits that deserve to be explored further. 

Focus and Attention

Many smokers claim that a cigarette break helps them gain more focus and improve their attention span when working. As it turns out, these claims may actually be backed up by scientific evidence. 

Nicotine has been found to boost individuals’ visual and spatial attention by inducing a state of heightened alertness. This is achieved by deactivating areas in the resting brain default network. These areas, normally activated during rest periods, are deactivated when we are presented with attention-demanding tasks. Consuming nicotine can contribute to deactivating them, making it easier to focus.

Short-Term Memory 

Besides helping you become more focused and attentive, nicotine also promotes your short-term memory. It does so by enhancing the activity of protein kinase B and stimulating the signalling of phosphoinositide 3‑kinase/Akt. Those names may just sound like medical jargon to you, but these compounds are crucial components of regulating memory and learning processes. 

Furthermore, nicotine could also help activate the signalling pathways of the thyroid receptor, which can help mitigate the effects of hypothyroidism on memory. 

Reaction Time and Athletic Performance 

This may come as a surprise to many, but nicotine usage among athletes has recently been on the rise. While it may have something to do with how addictive this alkaloid is, there may be more to nicotine and sports than meets the eye. 

Certain studies have shown that chewing nicotine gum before exercise and competitions can, indeed, boost physiological responses and athletic performance. An experiment carried out on baseball players in 2022 has shown that members of the group that was given nicotine gum before testing have shown increases in cognitive function during play, as well as baseball-hitting performance. 

Nicotine hasn’t, however, improved the muscle strength of athletes. If you’re considering taking nicotine as a gym supplement, it will not grant you any increased gains. 

Weight Loss

Many ex-smokers report gaining extra pounds after quitting their habit. This is often attributed to people replacing their smoke breaks with snacks, but the truth is more complicated than that. 

Nicotine acts as an appetite suppressant, which reduces food cravings and frequency of meals in smokers. In other words, if you vape or smoke cigarettes, you’ll feel less hungry after a smoke break. Furthermore, nicotine use increases the resting metabolic rate, which means that individuals who smoke, vape, or use other nicotine products burn more calories while they’re in a resting state compared to people who lead a nicotine-free lifestyle. 

Health Benefits of Nicotine: Can It Be Used in Medical Treatments? 

The potential benefits of nicotine are much more far-reaching than the positives we’ve discussed above. Research from the past couple of years shows that nicotine can also serve as a vital component of treatment for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. It has also been speculated that the alkaloid could potentially help people with ADHD. Finally, the link between schizophrenia and smoking revealed nicotine’s potential for alleviating some of the most debilitating effects of this mental condition. 

Neuroprotective Properties of Nicotine 

Scientists were prompted to explore nicotine’s potential for treating neurodegenerative disorders because of the negative correlation between smoking and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In other words, older smokers have developed these diseases in far lower numbers than their non-smoking peers. 

Once nicotine’s neuroprotective properties were investigated further, it was found that the substance binds with beta amyloid, which is a protein responsible for the formation of the damaging plaques that cause neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s patients. Through this binding process, nicotine prevents beta amyloid from aggregating to create these plaques, effectively slowing down the onset of the disease. In the case of Parkinson’s disease, nicotine can work to help alleviate some of its symptoms through stimulating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and regulating dopamine function. 

Can Nicotine Help Individuals With ADHD?

Several studies have suggested that nicotine may help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We’ve already discussed how it works to improve focus, attention, and short-term memory. A clinical trial carried out on non-smokers has shown that the subjects who were given a nicotine patch demonstrated significant improvements across a number of inattention indices

It’s important to note here that while the trial discussed above is certainly promising, more similar studies need to be carried out in the future to completely prove or disprove nicotine’s potential as treatment for adults with ADHD. 

The Impact of Nicotine on Schizophrenic Brain Activity 

The smoking rate among patients with schizophrenia is very high. In 1995, 85% of patients with the condition smoked. These numbers prompted many to think that smoking is a risk factor for developing the disease – but is that really the case? 

As it turns out, the increased release of dopamine associated with nicotine use has shown to reverse hypofrontality, i.e. the reduction of neuronal activity in certain sections of the brain. Hypofrontality is thought to be responsible for the negative schizophrenia symptoms. Thus, the higher rates of smoking among schizophrenics may be explained by the patients using cigarettes to alleviate their debilitating symptoms. 

How Does Nicotine Compare to Other Substances? 

Nicotine is undoubtedly a powerful, addictive stimulant. It is often used in tandem with other substances, such as alcohol or caffeine. Many smokers can’t imagine having a beer or a cup of coffee without a cigarette to go along with it. Even illegal drugs seem to go together well with nicotine – marijuana users combine tobacco with cannabis when rolling up so-called “spliffs,” and cocaine significantly increases cigarette cravings. 

Alcohol 

Despite being legal and widely available pretty much everywhere in the world, alcohol is one of the most damaging substances out there, if used frequently and over a long period of time. It can cause liver disease and a whole host of other digestive problems. It has also been linked with a higher risk of cancer and the weakening of the immune system. 

Nicotine use carries fewer risks when compared to alcohol. Its negative effects, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues are also prevalent among those who abuse alcohol. On the other hand, it offers a number of benefits that we discussed above. One of them is improved cognitive function, which is something that alcohol use directly impairs. 

Caffeine

Out of all the stimulants out there, only caffeine is more popular and widely acceptable than nicotine. When you dive deeper into the effects of both substances, it becomes clear that they work in very similar ways – both provide short-term boosts to focus and attention, increase metabolic rates, and can improve athletic performance. They also carry the same risks, mainly in the cardiovascular system. Finally, they’re both very addictive. 

The similarities between caffeine and nicotine end once you look at the public perception of the two. Coffee drinking is heavily promoted and encouraged all around the world – cafes at every street corner, a cult-like obsession among office workers, and endless references to coffee in pop-culture speak for themselves. 

Nicotine, on the other hand, is seen as something negative and undesirable. In many ways, this sentiment is understandable. With cigarettes being the main nicotine ingestion method for so many decades, the negative connotations are unavoidable. However, the increase in popularity of new, reduced-harm methods warrants a shift in the public perception of nicotine. 

THC 

Although it has some sedative effects, nicotine definitely falls in the stimulant category of substances. THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana, is the exact opposite. It’s a popular depressant with some stimulant properties that is experiencing a major reputation overhaul right now. The recreational use of cannabis is being legalised across many Western countries, and its medicinal qualities have been embraced by governments and medical professionals. 

In terms of the interaction with our brains, THC, like nicotine, has certain cognitive effects, namely in the area of boosting creativity and imagination. Contrary to nicotine, though, it can impair attention and focus. It has also been shown to worsen short-term memory, especially in individuals who chronically use THC from a young age. 

Cocaine 

The stimulative properties of cocaine are much more pronounced than those of nicotine. While both are addictive stimulants, nicotine and cocaine have more differences than similarities, especially when it comes to their negative effects on the human body. 

Paranoia and increased irritability are common short-term implications of using cocaine. Frequent cocaine usage over the long term can result in the development of mood disorders, sexual problems, chronic headaches, seizures, and pulmonary tract complications. 

Both substances interact with the same brain reward pathways at first exposure, but once addicted, the long- and short-term side effects of cocaine use are significantly worse than those associated with using nicotine. 

nicotine vs other substances

Reduced-Harm Nicotine Products

For centuries, consuming nicotine has been associated with a wide range of potentially deadly health risks. It was never nicotine itself that was the culprit, though; burning and inhaling the smoke from tobacco leaves is responsible for the vast majority of smoking-related deaths. 

Nowadays, the availability of reduced-harm products containing nicotine presents a viable alternative for all smokers who want a safer way to satisfy their cravings. Now, does this mean that if you’ve never smoked or used nicotine in any other way, you should pursue these alternatives? No. Falling into an addiction is never a good thing. 

On the other hand, if you’re a smoker and want to improve your physical well-being, dropping traditional cigarettes with the help of one of the products listed below is the first step towards a healthier future. 

Vaping 

Electronic cigarettes, or vapes, have generated a fair amount of controversy in recent years. This is mainly because of the marketing strategies adopted by e-cigarette companies that leaned heavily towards advertising these products to children through colourful packaging and candy-like flavours. 

Adult smokers, however, might want to consider vaping as a decent alternative to smoking. It produces far fewer toxic chemicals and does not involve tobacco in any way. Bear in mind that vaping isn’t necessarily healthy. It’s significantly understudied, and while that’s slowly changing, there’s still much we don’t know about the impact of vaping on the human body. 

Nicotine Gum 

First released onto the market in 1984, nicotine gum has become one of the most popular smoking cessation aids over the course of the past four decades. It should come as no surprise, since it’s discrete and provides an effective way to release nicotine into the brain. 

However, many ex-smokers report that chewing gum does replicate the same feeling of satisfaction that cigarettes provided them with. The lack of any kind of smoke or vapour certainly doesn’t address the psychological side of cigarette addiction. 

Nicotine Patches 

Nicotine patches are even more effective at delivering nicotine into the bloodstream than chewing gum or vaping. They’re great for dealing with withdrawal symptoms and recommended by many medical professionals as the least invasive nicotine replacement method. 

Much like nicotine gum, though, patches are not as popular among ex-smokers as e-cigarettes or heated tobacco devices primarily because they do not satisfy the ritualistic, oral aspect of smoking. 

Heated Tobacco 

Heavily marketed by leading “Big Tobacco” companies as the healthiest ways to indulge in the smoking habit, heated tobacco devices are everywhere right now. They don’t produce actual smoke, but rather a nicotine-rich “aerosol” obtained from heating up the tobacco. 

While they certainly reduce the harm associated with smoking through taking combustion out of the process of consuming tobacco, medical professionals remain doubtful about heated tobacco. After all, it’s still the same tobacco that contains numerous hazardous compounds even before being burned. 

NEAFS

One of the main issues smokers who want to quit cigarettes struggle with is the fact that most of the smoking alternatives on the market have certain shortcomings that make the quitting process all the more difficult. 

Vapes and e-cigarettes can irritate the throat, and the available flavours are often not something that heavy cigarette users are looking for. Nicotine gum and patches may be great in terms of nicotine delivery, but they lack that smoke-break, ritualistic aspect that cigarettes provided them with. Finally, heated tobacco is in the eyes of many the same old devil, dressed in slightly different clothing. Is there any product out there that ex-smokers could be fully satisfied with?

Enter NEAFS. Our TEO devices, which are based on the heated tobacco technology, allow you to indulge in a satisfying smoke break, with no tobacco involved. With no tobacco, odour, or tar, our cigarette sticks emit 90-95% less chemicals than the popular heated tobacco brands. 

With a wide choice of delicious flavours and nicotine-free options, NEAFS can accompany you on your quitting journey at whatever pace you feel comfortable with. Our 1.5% nicotine sticks contain just the right amount of nicotine to satisfy your cravings and experience its benefits, while still reducing the amount of nicotine you take in with each stick. 

Once you’re ready to move on towards a nicotine-free lifestyle, our 0% nicotine products will allow you to continue indulging in relaxing smoke breaks, making the psychological aspect of quitting much easier to deal with. 

Final Thoughts 

Nicotine has been around for thousands of years. For the vast majority of that time, humans have used it in the most harmful way possible – through inhaling the smoke from burned tobacco leaves. Nowadays, with so many alternative nicotine products on the market, the reputation of this alkaloid deserves to change. A more mature discourse needs to be adopted with regard to nicotine in order for humanity to reap its benefits, all the while remaining aware of the pitfalls of nicotine dependence.

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