Nicotine gets a bad rap! For decades it’s been negatively linked to tobacco and cigarettes, but surprisingly, IT’S NOT responsible for any of the deadly diseases associated with smoking. Unlike their electronic counterparts, traditional cigarettes contain over 5,000+ chemicals, 60 of which are known to cause cancer. Cigarettes also produce a thick, chemically-infused tar that coats and damages user’s lungs. No scientific evidence directly links nicotine to any deadly health conditions, and although it can be highly addictive and pose other minor health risks, it’s relatively harmless in low doses – similar to caffeine. In fact, studies have found numerous benefits to nicotine, including weight loss, improved brain function and a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s, depression and more.
What is Nicotine? The Basics…
Nicotine (C10H14N2) is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in tobacco leaves and over 65 other plants, including tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes. Nicotine acts as the plants’ natural protection from insects – an insecticide that’s not only poisonous to insects, but to humans as well. Of course, for nicotine to be harmful to humans it must be absorbed in large quantities, making it almost impossible to receive a lethal dose (40mg to 60mg) by smoking or vaping alone. Most of the limited number of nicotine overdoses are caused by accidental ingestion of tobacco or tobacco-based products.
WARNING: Nicotine is Highly Addictive
Although it’s a natural occurring compound that’s harmless in low quantities, nicotine is still highly addictive. According to the American Heart Association, nicotine addiction is one of the hardest addictions for users to break. Addictive both physically and psychologically, nicotine elevates a user’s mood and causes a temporary feeling of relaxation by activating the ‘reward system’ in the brain. Once it wears off, the user craves more, and if the cravings aren’t satisfied it may result mild withdrawal symptoms, such as: irritability, anxiety, insomnia and depression.
Debunking the Anti-Nicotine Critics
Many critics claim that nicotine addiction is just as bad, if not worse than cocaine or heroin addiction. While this may be true, depending on how you define addiction, nicotine does not produce the severe side effects or long-term negative health consequences associated with hard drugs. Users don’t die or suffer heart attacks and strokes while using nicotine, and they don’t sweat profusely or go into convulsions when they don’t get their fix. This scare tactic, comparing nicotine to illegal drugs, is often used by anti-smoking advocates to discourage tobacco use. The fact is, nicotine addiction is just as harmful as many people’s dependency on a morning cup of Joe.
Nicotine DOES NOT Cause Cancer
Other critics blindly attribute diseases caused by smoking, such as throat and lung cancer, to nicotine. The truth is, there is no scientific evidence that nicotine causes cancer. Numerous studies support this fact; here’s what one long-term study found out about inhaling pure nicotine:
“We could not find any increase in mortality, in atherosclerosis or frequency of tumors compared with the controls. Particularly, there was no microscopic or macroscopic lung tumors nor any increase in pulmonary neuroendocrine cells. Throughout the study, however, the body weight of the nicotine exposed rats was reduced as compared with controls. In conclusion, our study does not indicate any harmful effect of nicotine when given in its pure form by inhalation.”
* Long-term effects of inhaled nicotine – Waldum HL, Nilsen OG, Nilsen T, Rørvik H, Syversen V, Sanvik AK, Haugen OA, Torp SH, Brenna E. Life Sci. 1996; 58(16):1339-46.
Another long-term study compared smoking to pure nicotine replacements (such as nicotine patches and gum) in over 3,000 participants. Not surprisingly, the research found that smoking was definitively linked to the risk of developing lung cancer, while pure nicotine was not:
“In the adjusted models for lung cancer, nicotine replacement therapy alone was not a significant predictor, while smoking during the Lung Health Study was a significant predictor.”
* Does nicotine replacement therapy cause cancer? Evidence from the Lung Health Study – Murray RP, Connett JE, Zapawa LM. Nicotine Tob Res. 2009; 11(9):1076-82.
Other Possible Long-Term Risks?
Nicotine may not cause cancer, but there’s conflicting research about it’s impact on heart and cardiovascular health. Since nicotine temporarily raises a user’s heart rate and blood pressure, there’s undoubtedly a short-term impact on the cardiovascular system. Unfortunately, most of the long-term studies concerning cardiovascular health take into account smoking and not pure nicotine. One study that evaluated nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products concluded that:
“Clinical trials of NRT in patients with underlying, stable coronary disease suggest that nicotine does not increase cardiovascular risk.”
* Cardiovascular toxicity of nicotine: implications for nicotine replacement therapy – Benowitz NL, Gourlay SG. J Am Coll Cardiol. 1997 Jun; 29(7):1422-31.
Smoking has been attributed to heart complications for years, but is nicotine the cause, or the hundreds of other harmful chemicals found in cigarettes? Although some studies rule out nicotine as a risk, it’s still too early (in our opinion) to draw conclusions about the effect of pure nicotine, like that found in electronic cigarettes, on heart and cardiovascular health.
Some of the Positive Effects of Nicotine
Despite being addictive and a potential cardiovascular risk, nicotine has a variety of benefits:
- Nicotine Assists in Weight Loss
A stimulant similar to caffeine, nicotine changes how your brain and body function. After being absorbed into the blood stream, it causes a rapid release of adrenaline, resulting in an increased heart rate and rising blood pressure. In response, your body dumps more blood glucose and blocks the release of insulin, making you slightly hyperglycemic, with higher blood sugar than normal. This hyperglycemic condition is why nicotine helps to suppress users’ appetites, with excessive sugar causing the body to reduce hunger-inducing hormones. Nicotine may also increase your metabolic rate, which means that you’ll burn more calories than normal, further assisting in weight loss.
- Nicotine May Improve Cognitive Function
Cognitive function becomes impaired as we age and is often a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and numerous types of dementia. Nicotine has been reported to improve these symptoms, and a recent double-blind clinical trial found that the nicotine-consuming participants improved on tests of mental processing, attention and memory. The authors suggested that more research was necessary to further investigate the potential of nicotine for Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers, but the study supplied strong evidence of an overall cognitive benefit.
- Nicotine Stimulates Blood Vessel Growth
Another beneficial finding that has some negative implications as well, is that nicotine increases the rate of blood vessel formation. For those that suffer tissue damage after a heart attack or stroke, nicotine may eventually be used as a treatment option. However, another effect has also been confirmed: nicotine may accelerate the growth rate of tumors. Since tumors rely heavily on blood vessels, increased blood vessel formation may assist in tumor growth. It’s important to note that this effect was only observed in test subjects that already had tumors. Once again, there’s no scientific evidence that nicotine causes tumors or cancer.
- Nicotine May Assist With Depression
Nicotine has long been associated with depression, but a 2006 study found that nicotine may actually reduce depression symptoms. When non-smokers who scored high on the depression scale were randomly assigned either a nicotine patch or an inactive placebo patch, the ones who received nicotine had significantly lower depression scores after eight days. The evidence suggests that smokers may indeed smoke, in part, to improve their mood. It also explains why people prone to depression are twice as likely to be smokers.
- Other Possible Medical Benefits of Nicotine
Nicotine may be helpful with a whole host of other conditions, including: Alzheimer’s, Tourette’s, Ulcerative Colitis and Parkinson’s Disease.
The Take Away…
Nicotine is a highly addictive, psycho-active drug that affects the brain and central nervous system. With any type of drug there are bound to be some risks, but the risks associated with nicotine are no different than those associated with other mild stimulants such as caffeine. We’re not suggesting that people run out and start vaping to loose weight, or slap on nicotine patches to curb depression, but we are saying that nicotine isn’t as harmful as many in the media and anti-smoking lobby suggest. If you’re a smoker who can’t quit, remember that’s it’s not the nicotine exposing you to so much risk. Carbon monoxide, acetone, arsenic, formaldehyde and lead are just some of the harmful, cancer-causing agents found in cigarettes. The beautiful thing about electronic cigarettes is that they contain none of these harmful chemicals and still allow you to get your nicotine fix. Over time you can reduce your nicotine levels and curb the addiction, if you choose, making it much easier to quit.
MORE INFORMATION: What’s Inside an Electronic Cigarette?