From the beginning of nicotine addiction to the bitter end of the smoker’s life, mountains of information about quitting tobacco are available, revealing surprising findings. Instead of beating the “quit smoking” drum forever with little results, the following paragraphs will help the reader begin on the road of understanding the real truth about nicotine. Becoming addicted is only part of the problem. Learning how to prevent addiction in the first place is a powerful first step.
Prevention is easy compared to the ensuing battles of kicking nicotine addiction. That’s precisely why this information must be disseminated among all people, young and old.
Why Is Nicotine Addictive?
Nicotine addiction is associated with two contexts, the first being that of physical addiction. In its most basic form, physical addiction simply suggests the body cannot function normally without the presence of nicotine. Without it, the body begins to compensate but not before it resists the loss of the substance. The physical withdrawal of nicotine is not as violent as with drugs or alcohol, but are uncomfortable at best. Some of the well-known symptoms include the inability to sleep through the night, tiredness during waking hours, migraine-like headaches, insatiable appetite, and an overall irritable feeling. Fortunately, these are relatively short-lived on the physical side, but the lingering physiological effects of nicotine addiction last for months, years or even a lifetime.
Once the withdrawal symptoms subside and the body begins to adjust to its new addiction-free existence, the cravings for nicotine begin to rule the day and are the main reason people relapse into nicotine addiction. The majority of people who relapse blame the unending cravings as the number one cause and feel powerless to stop them.
Nicotine is a substance occurring naturally in a family of plants known as “Solanaceae”. Nicotine acts on the central nervous system and binds to nicotinic receptors (NCRs) in the body, which in turns causes the release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine.
The smoke from tobacco contains substances known as MAOs, or monoamine oxidase inhibitors. It’s the enzymes within these MAOs that are responsible for the “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Tobacco smoke causes an increase in the movement of the neurotransmitters, which in turn causes the NCRs to produce more dopamine, leading to more cravings for nicotine. Inside the adrenal medulla (adrenal gland), nicotine binds to the NCRs and causes an increase in the amount of calcium that is infused into cells. The end result is the release of adrenaline which in turn causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar.
How Addictive Is Nicotine?
To understand the stronghold nicotine has on the body, let’s consider what happens inside the body when nicotine is present. It’s not generally well-known that one of the natural protections from insects that plants have is nicotine. Most people don’t know that it has been used extensively as an insecticide that is so toxic it’s blamed for the large scale killing of honey bees. In fact, equal amounts of nicotine and strychnine have proven to be just as deadly. A remarkable finding is that nicotine’s chemical signature is very similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and is capable of “unlocking” locks inside the brain and permit direct and indirect control of a host of neuro-chemicals, one of which is dopamine.
To understand nicotine addiction is to grasp one of the brain’s main motivators to entice cravings and the insatiable desire to satisfy them. This motivator is dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with creating this desire. It is what keeps sending signals to satisfy cravings. Dopamine is what makes us feel satisfied after successfully completing a task. It’s that sense of relief when a big project is done, or we feel accepted by our peers, for example.
Speaking of dopamine, it’s responsible for making us want food and cranks up our desire in the anticipation of getting food. As you may already know, starving ourselves in this way only leads to more desire, eventually turning into a craving for food. The craving subsides once we’re eating and the stomach’s reaction to the food eventually tells the brain the stomach is full. This event of satisfying a craving for food is recorded in the brain and it teaches you to be more attentive the next time it occurs. The brain’s technique of permanently committing to our conscious memory dopamine pathway neuro-transmissions is responsible for this.
Nicotine Gum Addiction
As we all know by now, smoking is bad, very bad. But, trying to quit and staying smoke-free are entirely different. The addicted smoker knows how offensive secondhand smoke is. However, too often, the craving for nicotine is too strong and usually wins out even in some uncomfortable social situations. An entire industry was created several years ago to combat nicotine and smoking addiction. The industry is centered on nicotine laced gum.
When chewed, nicotine gum releases a small amount of nicotine that is absorbed into the bloodstream via the tissues inside the mouth. Often, just one piece of gum releases nearly the same amount of nicotine as one or two cigarettes. The gum is hugely popular for those addicted to nicotine either from smoking or using smokeless tobacco. While the reason for using nicotine gum to quit these behaviors is clear, it doesn’t come without its own set of possible negative side effects.
Nicotine Addiction All Over Again!
Fortunately for millions of tobacco users, the advent of nicotine gum presented an effective means to finally end their tobacco use once and for all. Unfortunately the regular use of the gum eventually led to another form of nicotine addiction. The gum removed the effects from smoking or chewing tobacco, but still the nicotine addiction took hold in another form and presented yet another uphill battle to overcome.
Nicotine has its own set of harmful effects already discussed in this article. The physical effects of excessive use of nicotine gum include incessant hiccups, constricted throat muscles and gum disease due to reduced blood flow to the gums. However, quitting the gum is known to be easier than quitting smoking and the same techniques can be used with success. As always, it’s imperative that setting and sticking to a goal of quitting nicotine is treated with the same determination as with quitting smoking.
What Makes Nicotine So Addictive?
To answer this question, consider for a moment a scenario where a chemical foreign to the body is introduced into the bloodstream but was small enough to make its way through the filters of the brain, capable of triggering its dopamine pathways. This is precisely what happens with nicotine addiction over time. The continued use of nicotine eventually creates an insatiable need for nicotine in the individual and can trick the mind into believing nicotine is more important than eating. The dopamine produced by the brain provides that calming feeling when the craving is satisfied, as short lived as this might be until another cigarette is needed. The trick is to understand what is really happening and take steps to stop. As with drug addiction, nicotine addiction treats the body in the same way when the satisfied feeling starts to fade. The need for more only gets stronger if the body detects a shortage of nicotine, all thanks to dopamine.
The urges and addiction can be cured, but it isn’t easy. The easy part is deciding to quit, and the hardest part, according to many former smokers, is deciding to keep quitting. This means always be in the mindset of the smoker who is trying to quit. From here, it’s much easier to fight the urges as hard as ever to solidify your success at quitting going forward.
Nicotine Addiction Now Tied to Mental Illness
“Nicotine dependency, like alcoholism, is a real mental illness and disease” (Polito, 2010). This may seem surprising to some people, but based on the facts of nicotine addiction, the dependency is permanent, much like alcoholism and other highly addictive drugs. However, it can be beaten. It’s true that breaking a nicotine addiction is very tough, but it can be done and it’s not as hard as one may initially think. According to Polito, beating the addiction is not about how much willpower a person has, but how the brain’s priorities have taught the body to respond to nicotine, or the lack of it. It’s the lack of nicotine that causes our brains to react based on the brain’s priorities, and leads us straight back into relapse.
Why then, are some people just social smokers who smoke only on weekends when out with friends, or during some stressful time? Also, how can it be that most of us will get hooked after only a few cigarettes? Immunity to addiction has long been considered partly related to genetics, albeit only a very small percentage of the total. To put this into perspective, consider what it’s like to be in the 90% of nicotine addicted individuals who are powerless to stop their addictive behavior, but see the other 10% simply walk away with no apparent signs of addiction. However, smokers were at one time part of the “immune” crowd before the first few cigarettes. It was the continued use that got them hooked.
Nicotine addiction for the most part rearranges the brain into believing that nicotine is a good thing. So much so that it makes the user believe it’s good for them, with the confirmation coming from the dopamine release into the brain making it so. However, the reality is quite the opposite. Without treatment directed at ending nicotine use forever, the symptoms of addiction continue and gradually kill the body, all the while telling the brain everything is fine.
Quitting for Good
Among the popular programs and products designed to end nicotine dependence, nicotine patches have enjoyed success over the years. The initial patches contain a high amount of nicotine at first while the first few phases of quitting are underway. This is for help getting used to stopping the behavior first, such as smoking, then gradually decreasing the nicotine in subsequent patches. Eventually, the plan is designed to wean the person off nicotine gradually, making it easier to stop completely.
Of course, the best solution is counseling either individually or in a group setting, where goals, rewards and recognition are given for achieving set levels of improvement until one day the addiction no longer has its death grip on the individual.