As much as smoking can be about lifestyle, a moment of leisure or habit, the one thing that gets most people to light up after the first time is the need for nicotine. This drug, more than anything else is the driving force behind the cigarette, just as caffeine makes that morning coffee a matter of urgency. But just what is Nicotine, and why do we crave it?
Let’s get the big scientific word out of the way first. Nicotine is a Parasypathomimetic Alkaloid, a compound found in the nightshade family of plants. Apart from tobacco, the potato, tomato, eggplant, chilli and belladonna all produce similar alkaloids, whose effects can vary between hot and spicy, tasty and fatal. This is why it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the spicy burn of the Capsaicin Alkaloid from chilli has the same addictive qualities as the puff from a cigarette…but I guess the health industry isn’t trying to make anyone give up tabasco sauce just yet.
So what is it about nicotine? Why isn’t it a take it or leave it flavouring like Capsaicin? To put it bluntly, nicotine has a bigger effect on the body because it is generally inhaled rather than ingested – so its effects can be almost instantenous. Whether you like it or not, the method of delivery is this alkaloid’s real strength. Nicotine is both a stimulant and a relaxant that within seven seconds of inhalation causes a release of glucose from the liver and andrenalin from the adrenal medulla plus other hormones, particularly acetylcholine and dopamine. Acetylcholine might sound like another dull word, but this hormone produces the improved concentration and reduction in pain that can encourage people to smoke when stressed. Alternatively, the dopamine released by nicotine is the ‘happy’ hormone that drives many addictive behaviours. When you like something, that’s the dopamine talking…so in a way nicotine can make you like it. In fact, nicotine may actually be more addictive than heroin.
And if you think that sounds bad, nicotine as an alkaloid is almost twice as toxic as those alkaloids found in cocaine. Believe it or not, a packet of cigarettes actually contains enough nicotine to be fatal…so think about that next time you feel like smoking thirty cigarettes at the same time. It’s actually far safer to be a caffeine addict, where eighty-five cups of coffee is considered a fatal dose. So even though nicotine may not cause the cancers related to smoking, it’s the guilty pleasure that encourages people to light up, and as a toxin, it’s a lot closer to poison than many of our other addictive compounds.
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