Nicotine has long been stigmatized due to its association with smoking; however, as discussed in earlier installments of this series, nicotine can be consumed in many ways. Now that you have an understanding of what it is and where it comes from, it’s time to move on to more important matters: What does nicotine do to the body and the brain?
The Effects of Nicotine on the Body
The frequency of nicotine use and the type of delivery system has an impact on how much nicotine is absorbed into the body. Regardless of the amount, nicotine only remains detectable for about 2-11 hours after absorption. A metabolite of nicotine called cotinine, however, can linger in the blood, saliva, hair and urine for longer. Genetics, age and diet play a role in how fast these chemicals are metabolized.
In some jurisdictions, employers can require employees to abstain from tobacco use even outside of work. So how do employers monitor tobacco use outside of the job? They use a nicotine or cotinine test, which obviously presents complications since some non-tobacco products contain nicotine. While nicotine testing for employment to promote smoke-free workplaces is highly controversial, it is nonetheless legal.
The Short-Term Effects of Nicotine
Nicotine’s immediate short-term effects are comparable to caffeine. Both substances cause a brief rise in blood pressure and heart rate. If chronic, these symptoms are linked to cardiovascular issues, yet research on nicotine patches has demonstrated no association between nicotine use alone and health problems like cancers or heart disease. Smoking or chewing tobacco is certainly dangerous, but consumption of nicotine by itself appears to be as harmless as drinking coffee.
The consumption of nicotine also increases blood glucose levels. This is generally thought to be the result of the increase in adrenalin levels, which stimulate the liver to release glucose. This is why nicotine intake is often associated with weight loss, as the rise in blood glucose levels increases the metabolic rate, which in turn leads to reduced appetite.
The Effects of Nicotine on the Brain
It only takes about 10 to 20 seconds after inhalation for nicotine to start stimulating neural receptors to release dopamine. Dopamine supplies a sense of relaxation despite the stimulative effects of nicotine on the brain. Some exciting new research has even uncovered some therapeutic uses for nicotine. Controlled doses of the substance have been used to successfully treat Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Tourette’s and schizophrenia. When used as treatment in research studies on Alzheimer’s, nicotine has shown to significantly improve attention, memory and psychomotor speed. Nicotine receptors also facilitate the entry of calcium into cells, so nicotine is believed to increase intracellular calcium, which in turn supports cell survival.
Interestingly, studies on nicotine have not resulted in participants becoming addicted to nicotine patches, nor did patients experience withdrawal. This fact gives further support to the theory that the other chemicals in tobacco products play a larger role in addiction. Since most effects of nicotine on the body are temporary, it remains to be seen whether or not medicinal nicotine would work in the long term.
The More You Know About Nicotine…
Knowledge is your greatest asset for protecting your health. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths about the effects of nicotine on the body, but hopefully this series helps clear up most of them. In Part 4, we’ll take a look at nicotine overdose and the symptoms of nicotine poisoning.