How Nicotine Addiction Works

Is Nicotine Physically Addictive?

Nicotine is a powerful drug resulting in physical addiction on par with that of cocaine. As with any chemical dependency, there can be both physical and psychological addictions that develop, serving to promote addiction.

What Causes Nicotine Addiction?

The most common forms of nicotine addiction are smoking and using chewing tobacco. When consumed, the effects of these products are felt within 10 seconds as the nicotine enters into your blood stream and reaches your brain. However, as soon as you stop cease nicotine use, the effects can wear off quickly—in fact, over half of the nicotine is removed from your body in a little as 60 minutes. This leaves nicotine addicted individuals craving another cigarette as withdrawal symptoms—irritability, agitation, anxiety, headache, and hunger—begin to take hold.

Chemicals in the brain—known as “neurotransmitters”—are responsible for regulating how you think and feel. Once nicotine is introduced into the body, it alters the natural state of chemical balance (known as homeostasis) in the brain—requiring a constant intake of nicotine in order to feel normal. Nicotine creates this physical addiction by primarily affecting the levels of three neurotransmitters: specifically, acetylcholine, dopamine, and glutamate.

  • Nicotine Increases Acetylcholine
    Nicotine increases the levels of acetylcholine that make nicotine users more alert and temporarily heightens concentration ability. When natural acetylcholine levels decrease, users need to smoke, chew or otherwise introduce nicotine to the system in order to rebalance the brain’s levels of acetylcholine. Additionally, nicotine has an extremely short half-life, requiring repeated intake in order to stave off withdrawal.
  • Nicotine Increases Dopamine
    Smoking increases the level of dopamine in the body, which stimulates reward centers in the brain. This process reinforces the smoking behavior, so that each cigarette makes smokers desire yet another. Also, habitual intake can trigger addiction, as the brain’s reward centers come to associate the act of smoking or chewing with pleasure and reduced tension.
  • Nicotine Increases Glutamate
    Glutamate is responsible for creating and storing memories in the brain. Each time a nicotine dependent individual smokes or chews, a memory of alertness (from the acetylcholine) and pleasure (from the dopamine) reinforces the desire for continued nicotine consumption.

What Are the Signs of Nicotine Addiction?

The two primary signs of nicotine addiction are the habitual use of nicotine products and experiencing withdrawal when use ends. Other signs of nicotine addiction include possession of cigarettes or copious amounts of lighters, ashtrays, cups for spitting chewing tobacco residue into, or pipes and tobacco pouches. Nicotine addicted individuals also tend to display stained teeth, gums, and fingers—as well as signs of premature wrinkling due to the drying out of the skin and lack of oxygen the skin receives.

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