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Is Nicotine As Bad As They Say?

Is Nicotine As Bad As They Say?

In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I went to college and continued into a professional career as a physician, tobacco products are everywhere.

That’s because our hometown is the headquarters of RJ Reynolds Company, one of the world’s largest tobacco producers.

While the company isn’t as big as 75 years ago, when cigarettes and other tobacco products could be advertised on TV (and when doctors were actually recommending them), the company still employs thousands upon thousands. It is in the top 10 employers here in our city.

Because it’s a fixture in the employment scene here, I wanted to take time to focus on tobacco and talk about whether tobacco/nicotine is really all that bad.

And by tobacco, I actually mean nicotine.

Nicotine is the active ingredient in tobacco that gives people the “high” they chase.

The thing about nicotine, as you’ll soon learn, is it actually can have some positive benefits. That being said, there are potential downsides to nicotine as well. But, in the interest of being fair to all things “natural,” I did want to highlight that while plenty of people believe tobacco, or really nicotine, to be positively awful, that’s not entirely true.

Allow me to explain…

Tobacco - Nicotine and Human Health

One of the things that almost every one of us gets wrong about nicotine as it relates to tobacco is most people believe they’re the same thing.

Tobacco is a plant that carries nicotine, similar to how oranges contain Vitamin C.

Nicotine is a compound, and tobacco is the carrier.

The thing about tobacco is it doesn’t just contain nicotine. It also contains thousands of chemicals. These chemicals (along with chemicals added in the manufacturing process for some products) are the most harmful and lead to severe health issues.

It doesn’t matter what kind of product we’re talking about (between chewing tobacco, vapes, and cigarettes/cigars) in most cases, the health outcomes we’ve been taught to worry about come from the use of these products.

The list of potential diseases that may result is long and includes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, and other health problems.

And then there’s nicotine.

Now, I want to make it clear I’m not saying nicotine is 100% safe, nor am I actively recommending it.

But it’s not the boogeyman as millions believe.

The mechanistic action of nicotine is it acts as a stimulant (like caffeine), and it does have addictive properties. It can be part of what makes using tobacco products addictive.

When you smoke or chew, nicotine activates a series of processes in the brain that trigger a release of neurotransmitters that lead to feelings of pleasure and energy. The effect on these neurotransmitters allows nicotine to benefit human health.

And, best yet, nicotine itself is not the primary cause of cancer or lung diseases associated with smoking. Still, it poses its own set of dangers, including addiction, increased heart rate, and blood pressure, and it can affect brain development in teenagers.

And here’s the good news.

Despite the well-documented dangers of nicotine (again, related to addiction and blood pressure), recent studies have shown it can also have some benefits when isolated from the harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke. Here are three potential benefits of nicotine:

1 - Enhanced Concentration and Memory:

One of the best use cases for nicotine is as a nootropic. Nicotine has been found to improve attention, learning, and memory. It stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that enhance cognitive functions, making it a topic of interest for research into treating cognitive impairments as well as for ” biohackers” to use it for boosting brain power.

Jennifer Rusted of Sussex (U.K.) University psychology said:

“To my knowledge, nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have, bizarrely…The cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine in a normal population are more robust than you get with any other agent.”

“We’ve demonstrated that you can get an effect from nicotine on prospective memory…prospective memory is the brain function that allows you to remember and complete tasks you’ve set for the future—like reminding yourself to call your sister at a certain time.”

As I mentioned above, nicotine affects neurotransmitters specifically by binding to nicotine receptors called nAChRs. These receptors help control the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, serotonin, GABA, glutamate, and endorphins, which are good for the “rush” you get and the focus you can get.

2 - Reduced Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases:

Studies of tobacco users have noticed that those who use tobacco tend to have far lower incidences of Parkinson’s than non-tobacco users.

A study on nicotine and Parkinson's disease suggests there may be some action that causes nicotine to suppress something known as SIRT6, which helps the brain resist neuron and cell death, which is exactly what happens at an advanced rate in people with Parkinson’s disease

The same kind of activity may help with Alzheimer’s, too.

Nicotine shows promise as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease due to its mechanism of action on nicotinic receptors in the brain.

These receptors, gradually lost during Alzheimer's, can be activated more directly by transdermal nicotine, potentially improving cognition. Vanderbilt University Medical Center is conducting the Memory Improvement through Nicotine Dosing (MIND) Study to explore this treatment further. The study aims to assess the impact of nicotine on attention, memory function, and even brain structure in individuals at risk of developing Alzheimer's​​, which is part of the reason I think there’s a good cause for isolated nicotine use.

3 - Mood Regulation:

Because nicotine is such a good augmentor of neurotransmitter release, there are possible therapeutic applications for using nicotine to adjust mood.

Nicotine can impact mood regulation by interacting with the brain's neurotransmitter systems, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine pathways.

These neurotransmitters play key roles in regulating mood, and nicotine's stimulation of their release can lead to temporary mood elevation and feelings of pleasure.

However, this effect is complex and can vary based on individual brain chemistry and nicotine dependency status.

This is most assuredly only ever meant to be temporary, owing to how addictive it can be. Still, because it has mood-altering effects, people can temporarily relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Nicotine - Not Terrible Like You’d Been Led to Believe

Based on what I wrote, I believe it’s safe to say that nicotine isn’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe.

Tobacco products, yes. But isolated nicotine, not so much when used in moderation and without any other conflicting health concerns being present.

I know there’s going to be continued research on nicotine as a therapy for mental health, and I encourage that kind of pursuit as I think it really can help people in limited situations. 

I wanted to point out that far too many times, we believe the narratives around various substances, foods, and therapies without comprehensively analyzing how these things may benefit us.

I won’t be recommending nicotine or nicotine-based products anytime soon, but I’m certainly not going to tell people that nicotine is going to kill you, as we know that simply isn’t true.


Talk soon,

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