Nicotine, the psychoactive component of the common grain tobacco, has been used for centuries by cultures across the world. Native to the Americas, tobacco’s use and cultivation in the Americas can be traced back all the way to 6000 BCE, and began use as a stimulant soon after by chewing or smoking the plant leaves. Originally, tobacco was introduced to Europe around 1560 after being presented to the French Ambassador Jean Nicot de Villemain, whose name Nicotine is derived from. It then began heavy dual use as both a medicine, for its perceived protection against the Bubonic plague, and as a pesticide. By the late 1600s, links between tobacco use and cancer began to be formed. This idea elucidated by James I of England in 1604 saying “smoking is a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, [and] dangerous to the lungs.” However, it retained its use as an effective pesticide until World War I due to its neurotoxic effects. Later, nicotine was isolated from the tobacco by two German chemists in 1828 who believed the compound to be a poison. In the first proof of alkaloids in forensic medicine, Belgian count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarme poisoned his brother-in-law in 1851.
After colonization of the United States, tobacco began being grown as a prominent cash crop in North Carolina and Chesapeake, where it was the prominent export and source of income for the communities those regions. As tobacco grew in prominence so too did the utilization of slave labor in North Carolina and Chesapeake because the crop was very labor intensive and difficult to grow. Finally, tobacco sales declined following the civil war. However, its many uses in cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snus, etc. persist to this day even though the prevalence of use has been declining for some time. Cigarette use by US adults has declined from 42% to less than 14% over the past 40 years.
Physiological Impacts and Dangers
To better understand the dangers of Tobacco and nicotine it will help to understand how they are classified. Tobacco finds itself within the deadly nightshade family of flowering plants. This family is known for being high in alkaloid content and its most infamous member is perhaps the Belladonna Nightshade plant, one of the most toxic plants to be found. Nicotine is classified chemically as an alkaloid compound, a group known for its unique ring structure and organic composition. This structure allows nicotine to rapidly enter the bloodstream when inhaled and cross the blood-brain barrier within 10-20 seconds, which accounts for the effects felt shortly after inhalation.
Nicotine product’s role in disease development and increasing the likelihood of various forms of cancer is well documented. With cigarette smoke containing at least 250 known toxic or carcinogenic compounds and tobacco products causing a myriad of health conditions including high blood sugar, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, cataracts, and associated with a variety of cancers including lung, gum, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, cervix, kidney, ureter, bladder, and some leukemias. Additionally, chronic high blood pressure, known as hypertension, caused by nicotine leaves regular smokers at risk for a stroke, which could leave them with permanent mental or physical deficits. Nicotine is also known to cause infertility, premature aging, yellow-stained skin. With that being said it is no surprise that nicotine accounts for over 440,000 deaths per year and countless other nicotine related illnesses.
Disclaimer: If you are a regular smoker recognize the warning signs of a physical ailment including, but not limited to, shortness of breath, persistent cough or coughing up blood, chest pain, blurred vision, frequent urination, excessive thirst, headaches, difficulty swallowing, persistent hoarseness, frequent cold or upper respiratory symptoms (cough, fever, fatigue, body aches), leg pain while walking that goes away with rest, or unexplained weight loss. If you are experiencing one or multiple of these symptoms please talk to your doctor as soon as you can. Also, note that it is never too early to think about quitting.
Psychological Impacts and Dangers
In addition to physical ailments nicotine addiction has many psychological components as well. Nicotine acts as in a similar way to your body’s natural neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This compound is well known for regulating the reward pathways within your brain, which release dopamine upon stimulation. Nicotine stimulates these same neurons after passing the blood-brain barrier effectively releasing an unnaturally large rush of dopamine onto the neurons responsible for making an individual feel good, which plays a large role in the development of nicotine addiction and nicotine dependence. Also, over stimulating certain neural pathways will allow for the growth of neurons along those pathways, enhancing neuronal responsiveness to nicotine, potentially strengthening addiction and feelings of craving that appear with nicotine abstinence. Along with addiction comes periods of withdrawal and as nicotine usage becomes a regular habit the appearance of withdrawal symptoms becomes more frequent and pronounced.
These withdrawal symptoms play heavily into the difficulty of quitting nicotine and its high comorbidity with psychiatric illness. During periods of nicotine abstinence withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, and stress begin to manifest. Another psychiatric symptom known as anhedonia, or the feeling as life contains very little pleasure, is common amongst those experiencing nicotine withdrawal. Additionally, behavioral conditioning explains another difficulty when trying to quit nicotine usage. Craving nicotine is usually accompanied by periods of abstinence from the substance, but they may also manifest when individuals participate in regular activities. Often regular smokers will partake while driving, drinking a cup of coffee or taking a break from work. These regular activities become associated with the act of smoking, which acts as a drive
Challenges, Resources and Methods to Ending Nicotine Addiction
As mentioned briefly in the psychology of Nicotine addiction there are large neurological and psychological components at play when attempting to quit nicotine. First, the unnaturally large number of neurons responding to nicotine in a daily smoker leads to strong craving sensations with on average just about a 2 hour nicotine absence. On top of that the large number of neurons means your body needs more and more nicotine leading to the pack-a-day nicotine dependence and so on. Also, regular activities becoming associated with nicotine use compounds this problem by creating regular obstacles to a person trying to quit as the habit of smoking during these activities is typically relaxing and normal. Finally, those attempting to quit nicotine can suffer withdrawal symptoms. As nicotine is as addictive as cocaine and heroin and can be just as difficult to quit. The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are not typically as severe as those other two drugs but regular users attempting to quit can expect to feel regular craving, anhedonia, anxiety, stress, tingling in the hands or feet, sweating, nausea, constipation, headaches, coughing, sore throat, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.
On top of these symptoms a regular excuse for staying on nicotine is the weight loss associated with it. As a stimulant, nicotine is known to reduce appetite, which leads many to associate it with weight loss. This is true and many attempting to quit nicotine will find they are continuously hungry with associated weight gain. However, the reduction in athletic performance, endurance, and risk for debilitating illnesses like stroke make the long term use of nicotine seem more risky as those who continue to use the substance as a method of weight control end up being overweight anyway due to a lack of ability to regularly exercise in any meaningful capacity. The only way to keep the weight off for users who find themselves in some of these situations would seem to be that they could continually ramp up their nicotine use, but increasing nicotine consumption has the effect of increasing the likelihood that they would develop some sort of debilitating disease themselves. These and other factors contribute to startlingly low statistic that on average only 3% of regular nicotine users can successfully quit the substance per year. Not discussed in this article so far are also the social aspects of nicotine abuse and the impacts of quitting may have upon an individual and those they surround themselves with. As many can see and have experienced, the cycle of nicotine addiction is a difficult one to break.
Resources and Methods
Controlling nicotine addiction can be a daunting task if undertaken alone. Most successful methods to quitting involve a team effort to bolster support and maintain accountability on those trying to quit. A good resource for quitting is to see your regular physician as he/she can direct you towards meaningful counseling and treat withdrawal symptoms with effective medications. Additionally, nicotine addiction experts are willing to talk with anyone about their experiences at any time and links to these addiction hotlines will be featured below. Also, some additional resources will be mentioned alongside for those more inclined to seek other forms of help. Finally, speaking candidly about your addiction to your family and friends is often the first step towards receiving the motivation and support for moving forward with the cessation of nicotine use.
The most effective methods to quitting nicotine are often a combination of nicotine replacement therapy and psychosocial counseling to combat the most difficult aspects of addiction. First, the nicotine replacement therapy is effective at combatting the challenging side effects of nicotine withdrawal. Second, the counseling enables individuals to take a look at the habits they associate with nicotine to better prepare them for the craving sensation and to break the association of those regular activities with smoking. It can be a challenging and difficult road but many experts will say if you can make it the first 30 days without smoking then you are well on your way to quitting.
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