Nicotine is portrayed as the “Bad guy” from its association with smoking. Because it is the most famous ingredients of tobacco, it has been accused of causing the harms of smoking, when in reality just about everything in burning tobacco causes disease and death except nicotine. Not only is nicotine blamed for health problems it doesn’t cause—like cancer and emphysema—but the actual benefits of nicotine are often ignored or even suppressed.
Nicotine is an alkaloid in the tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum, which was smoked or chewed in the Americas for thousands of years before European invaders also succumbed to its pleasures and shipped it back to the Old World. Nicotine has always been regarded as medicinal and enjoyable at its usual low doses.
Psychologists and tobacco-addiction specialists, including some in world-leading laboratories in Britain, think it’s now time to distinguish clearly between nicotine and smoking. The evidence shows smoking is the killer, not nicotine, they say.
Some studies show nicotine, like caffeine, can even have positive effects. It’s a stimulant, which raises the heart rate and increases the speed of sensory information processing, easing tension and sharpening the mind.
Researchers have known since the 1960’s that cigarette smokers have a much lower incidence of Parkinson’s than non-smokers. And research on Swedish snus users has confirmed that the protective effect of nicotine doesn’t depend on smoking.
Nicotine can protect brain cells from damage, which explains why smoking can reduce the risk of Parkinson’s. There is also evidence, as well as being protective, nicotine can help improve symptoms of Parkinson’s — such as dyskinesia (involuntary movement) and trouble with memory.
If dozens of human and animal studies published over the past six years are borne out by large clinical trials, nicotine — freed at last of its noxious host, tobacco, and delivered instead by chewing gum or transdermal patch — may prove to be a weirdly, improbably effective drug for relieving or preventing a variety of neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), Tourette’s and schizophrenia. It might even improve attention and focus enough to qualify as a cognitive enhancer. And, oh yeah, it’s long been associated with weight loss, with few known safety risks.
Nicotine? Yes, nicotine
In fact, the one purpose for which nicotine has proven futile is the very same one for which it’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration, sold by pharmacies over the counter, bought by consumers and covered by many state Medicaid programs: quitting smoking. In January 2012, a six-year follow-up study of 787 adults who had recently quit smoking found that those who used nicotine replacement therapy in the form of a patch, gum, inhaler or nasal spray had the same long-term relapse rate as those who did not use the products. Heavy smokers who tried to quit without the benefit of counselling were actually twice as likely to relapse if they used a nicotine replacement product.
What are e-cigarettes and how do they work?
An e-cigarette is a device that allows you to inhale nicotine in a vapour rather than smoke.
E-cigarettes do not burn tobacco and do not produce tar or carbon monoxide, two of the most damaging elements in tobacco smoke.
They work by heating a liquid (called an e-liquid) that typically contains nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine, and flavourings.
Using an e-cigarette is known as vaping.
Smoking kills half of all those who do it – plus 600,000 people a year who don’t, via second-hand smoke – making it the world’s biggest preventable killer, with a predicted death toll of a billion by the end of the century, according to the World Health Organization.
One reason smoking is so addictive is that it’s a highly efficient nicotine delivery system, McNeill says. “Smoking a tobacco cigarette is one of the best ways of getting nicotine to the brain – it’s faster even than intravenous injection.” Also, tobacco companies used various chemicals to make the nicotine in cigarettes even more potent.
It’s long been accepted that nicotine acts as a weight suppressant. When smokers quit, they usually gain weight. But a recent study shows how nicotine affects metabolism by triggering the body to burn certain kinds of fat cells through a process called thermogenesis.
A 2017 paper by scientists from New Zealand and the U.K. even suggested the idea that “vaping electronic cigarettes with nicotine and flavours could deliver similar appetite and weight control effects as smoking.” The idea deserves exploration, say the researchers.
Research has repeatedly shown that nicotine enhances short-term memory. In fact, it’s among the most widely recognized benefits of nicotine. In a typical nicotine/memory study, University of Surrey (U.K.) researchers gave 10 smokers and 10 non-smokers either nicotine gum or a placebo, and then had them complete short-term memory tasks at set points for four hours.
Nicotine normalizes schizophrenic brain activity
Almost 90 percent of people suffering from schizophrenia smoke cigarettes. That’s a smoking rate about six times higher than the general population. Scientists have long assumed that this is an example of self-medication.
A study in Paris and a large international team showed the discovery of a genetic mutation associated with the cognitive problems found in many people suffering from schizophrenia, which may also explain why so many people with schizophrenia smoke. The study describes how nicotine helps normalize brain activity in people with the mutation. The authors hope their research will lead to effective nicotine-based treatments for patients with the mutation.
As early as the 1920s, researchers were testing it to treat Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating neurological disorder that affects about 1% of the population, causing rigidity, slow movement, tremors, and in many cases, dementia. Nicotine Improves Some Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Nicotine has been shown to mimic the role of acetylcholine. It bridges the gap so that information from nerve cells can travel.
Dopamine also helps control movement. Nicotine receptors in the striatum, the comma-shaped structure near the centre of the brain where movements are planned and controlled, are located near the terminals that regulate and emit dopamine. Even a small dose of nicotine stimulates the release of dopamine in the striatum, putting the brakes on movement that otherwise would go uncontrolled.
Research around nicotine is still ongoing in relation to Parkinson’s.
What is fascinating is nicotine is regarded as one of the most addictive substances, yet laboratory rats didn’t get addicted to its moderate pleasure. It’s also worth noting, trials on people with schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome did not cause a noticeable addiction.
Many studies have shown that nicotine can reduce tic severity and frequency and improved behaviours related to inattention in patients with Tourette’s. The reduction in these involuntary movements has been associated with nicotine’s ability to turn off certain nicotine receptors in the brain.
What is safer nicotine?
Vaping exposes users to fewer toxins and at lower levels than smoking cigarettes. Switching to vaping significantly reduces your exposure to toxins that can cause cancer, lung disease, and diseases of the heart and circulation like heart attack and stroke.
Vaping versus smoking
Cigarettes release thousands of different chemicals when they burn. Many are poisonous and up to 70 cause cancer.
Toxins in tobacco smoke can also cause other serious illnesses, including lung disease, heart disease and stroke.
Vaping exposes users to far fewer toxins than cigarette smoking, and vapes do not produce tar or carbon monoxide, 2 of the most harmful substances in tobacco smoke.