How Addictive Is Nicotine?

How Addictive Is Nicotine?

Nicotine addiction

Although completely legal and easily available, cigarettes are a highly addictive drug. The main active ingredient, nicotine, is a stimulant that causes a wide range of responses in the brain. Nicotine, in fact, is easily as addictive as heroin or cocaine. It creates both physical and psychological dependence in 90% of smokers and can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to quit without professional help.

How Does Nicotine Work in the Brain?

Nicotine is a chemical that naturally exists inside tobacco leaves. Nature uses nicotine as a way to keep bugs from eating the leaves of tobacco and other plants in the nightshade family. This potent chemical has been used as a pesticide by farmers as well. When taken in high doses it causes severe illness or death, but smaller doses create a unique, simultaneously stimulating and relaxing response in the brain.

Within seven seconds of inhalation nicotine bombards several parts of the brain. It hijacks the natural chemical signal and response system that the brain uses for learning, emotional response, self-control, and memory. The chemical nature, or shape, of nicotine allows it to bond with many different neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. When this happens the brain is tricked into responding with boosts of a number of different chemicals in the endocrine system. The most powerful of these substances is dopamine; the chemical used by the brain to trigger feelings of euphoria, wellness, confidence, comfort and reward. Alongside dopamine, however, nicotine also impacts the levels and function of the following brain chemicals:

  • Acetylcholine (stimulates memory and concentration, blocks pain)
  • Norepinephrine (alertness, arousal)
  • Epinephrine (aka adrenaline, stimulates energy bursts)
  • Vasopressin (blood vessel constriction)
  • Histamine (digestion, immune responses)
  • Beta-endorphin (relaxation, anxiety relief)
  • Serotonin (happiness, well-being)

Nicotine causes the amount of these substances to significantly increase in the brain. The result is a combination of physiological and emotional reactions that the brain registers as pleasurable and positive. If and when the supply of nicotine is removed from the brain the following responses are common:

  • Powerful or irresistible physical cravings
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Emotional obsession
  • Irritability
  • Craving comfort in other substances or behaviors

The brain uses every emotional and physical tool it has to keep the smoker smoking. Many recovering heroin, cocaine, and alcohol addicts claim that quitting smoking is much harder than quitting those other substances.

Overcoming Nicotine Addiction

The first step in nicotine addiction recovery is for the body to correct its proper chemical balance. Until that happens the nicotine addict will experience symptoms of physical withdrawal. In most cases the physical symptoms fade in just a few days. The more powerful aspect of nicotine addiction, however, is the psychological grip it has. Long after the physical addiction has passed, the brain will crave it for purely emotional reasons. Some smokers relapse years after they quit when they face a particularly stressful situation.

In order to maintain long-term recovery from nicotine addiction the neural pathways created in the pleasure center of the brain by the drug must be gradually replaced and repaired. This happens over time through positive reinforcement, developing healthy new ways of coping with stress or anxiety, and allowing the brain to overcome powerful associative memories with new positive feelings about being a healthy non-smoker.

24 Addiction Recovery Helpline

If you have additional questions about overcoming nicotine addiction – or an addiction to any other substance or behavior – call our toll-free helpline right now for immediate, confidential answers and access to the best recovery programs available.

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