How harmful is nicotine to your body?
Nicotine is the well-known addictive substance found in tobacco. Like caffeine and cocaine, it’s an alkaloid due to containing nitrogen. It temporarily leaves you with an almost ‘high’ like other stimulants, it also raises your heart rate and cognitive function. However, there’s huge misconception around whether nicotine is harmful to our bodies and if so, how harmful is it?
Does nicotine cause cancer?
There are a lot of misconceptions about how harmful nicotine is to the body with many people in the UK believing that nicotine causes cancer. The Royal Society for Public Health’s research found that 90% of people surveyed believe nicotine to be harmful to the body.
Four in ten smokers and ex-smokers incorrectly believed that nicotine in cigarettes is the cause of most smoking related cancers, a 2017 study by Public Health England found. However, this isn’t true. Smoking is the biggest avoidable cause of death in the UK due to the intake of tar and carbon monoxide.
This study by PHE also found that:
- Only 7.5% of the UK thought that none or a very small part of the risk of smoking comes from nicotine
- 14% thought that nicotine was the biggest risk of smoking
- Almost a quarter (24.2%) of the population didn’t know anything about nicotine effects
In 2016/2017, there were an estimated 484,700 hospital admission attributable to smoking, this clearly shows how much of an impact smoking cigarettes has on health. Smokers lose more than ten years of life compared to never-smokers according to this researcg document.
An in-depth study on topic undertaken by the Lung Health Study found that although there was a clear link between smoking and cancer, there was no association between using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and getting cancer.
Professor John Newton, Director of Health Improvement at PHE said, “misunderstanding about the risks from nicotine may be deterring smokers from using quit aids such as e-cigarettes or nicotine replacement therapies like patches and gum.“
Giving smokers and vapers the correct facts on the effects of nicotine and tobacco cigarettes is key. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) found that health was the number one reason for ex-smokers to take up use of e-cigarettes.
Nicotine & The Brain
Being a very clever substance, nicotine is able to provide both stimulation and relaxation by increasing pleasure and reducing stress. The mental and physical state of the smoker can influence the way the experience is perceived by the smoker.
However, research shows that over time, nicotine depresses the brain’s ability to feel pleasure therefore the smoker would need more nicotine to achieve the same levels of pleasure.
Nicotine is able to bind to certain receptors in the brain. The receptors that nicotine connects to are called nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nACHRs). When they bind, the receptors stimulate the release of neurotransmitters. These send messages from the brain around the body, one neurotransmitter you may already be familiar with is dopamine which can affect emotional responses.
Dopamine released from the ventral tegmental region of the brain has a central role in addictions as it enables you to remember rewards and good experiences, thus wanting more. Just like when you give your pet dog a treat for being good. It has many positives but also huge negatives.
It has a sinister side which causes havoc with drug, gambling, sex and other addictions due to causing huge spikes of dopamine being released. For example, heroin addicts get a ‘high’ from the dopamine spike. This then prompts the addict to keep going back for more and more. Here’s a quick film by The Guardian that outlines dopamine and its impact.
Dopamine isn’t the only neurotransmitter that’s affected by nicotine.
Serotonin affects a huge number of bodily functions, but it mainly controls and regulates moods. It’s often named the ‘feel good’ chemical as it’s so highly involved in everybody’s sense of wellbeing.
Noradrenaline (also named norepinephrine) is released into the blood as a stress hormone when the brain detects a stressful event. It can cause an increase in heart rate, release glucose into the blood and increase blood flow to muscles.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that speeds up the activity of neurons.
GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter which slows down neuron activity, the opposite to glutamate.
The complexity and range of neurotransmitters that nicotine affect is why it has such a difference in effects in every single user.
Nicotine & The Heart
As nicotine is a stimulant, there is some link between nicotine and the heart. Nicotine temporarily increases heart rate which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. Blood pressure is also affected, increasing when consumed but wearing off eventually.
However, nicotine does have a big effect on the endothelium, the thin layer of cells which line the inside of your blood vessels. If your blood vessels stop functioning correctly, it can lead to serious problems such as strokes, heart attacks, artery diseases and long-term high blood pressure.
Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to using nicotine. However, the impacts of nicotine shown in research are relatively low compared to the risks of smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes. The current consensus that the public believe nicotine is harmful needs to change in the future to help smokers move away from cigarettes to e-cigarettes.