Nicotine: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Posted in , , , by Ms Lucy Holl

Nicotine is a nitrogen-containing chemical found in several types of plants, including the tobacco plant. It can also be created synthetically. 

Along with red peppers, aubergine, tomatoes and potatoes, tobacco plants derive from the nightshade family of plants and contain a specific type of nicotine known as nicotiana tabacum. 

While not excessively harmful or cancer-causing by itself, nicotine is known for having a highly addictive nature, with certain studies finding it to be as difficult to give up as heroin. 

Nicotine addiction also exposes people to the extremely harmful effects of smoking tobacco — the most common preventable cause of death in the UK.

In this blog, we are going to take a detailed look at the good, bad and ugly side of nicotine, teaching you all you need to know about how it works, what it does and why you should avoid becoming addicted. 

The history of nicotine

Since being discovered back in the 14th century, tobacco has exploded in popularity and had a rich and interesting history ever since. Here are some of the key milestones in its history: 

  • 1492: Tobacco is discovered
    Tobacco is thought to have been discovered by Christopher Columbus while exploring the Americas. He is said to have then brought a few tobacco leaves and seeds back with him to Europe. 
  • The 1500s: Nicotine gets its name
    A French diplomat called Jean Nicot — after whom nicotine is named — began to popularise the use of tobacco throughout Europe, introducing the substance to France in 1558, Spain in 1559 and England in 1565.
  • The 1700s: The tobacco industry grows
    The industry gradually grew throughout this century, with tobacco mainly being produced for pipe-smoking, chewing and snuff. Cigarettes were introduced in the early 1700s but didn’t become popular until the American Civil War. 
  • 1763: Tobacco kills pests
    Tobacco was first used successfully as an insecticide in 1763 thanks to the toxic properties of nicotine.
  • 1828: Nicotine = poison
    Nicotine was first isolated from tobacco and identified as a poison by two German scientists — Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt, a doctor, and Karl Ludwig Reinmann, a chemist.
  • 1880: The rise of cigarettes
    The tobacco industry exploded when a machine was first patented to mass-produce paper cigarettes. From this point onwards, cigarettes became much easier to produce, giving rise to the dawn of many major tobacco corporations.
  • The 1900s: Minors banned from smoking
    By the end of the 19th century, lawmakers had begun to realise the harmful effects of nicotine. This led to laws being passed that banned retailers from selling nicotine to minors.
  • 1964: Smoking linked to health conditions
    The Surgeon General of the U.S. published a study linking smoking with heart disease and lung cancer. 
  • 1994: Nicotine = addiction
    The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially recognised nicotine as an addictive drug that produced dependency during the mid-1990s. 

How nicotine impacts the human body 

Nicotine acts as both a sedative and a stimulant, impacting various parts of the body in different ways. 

Nicotine as a stimulant

When a body is exposed to nicotine, you will often experience a ‘kick’. This is partly caused by nicotine stimulating the adrenal glands, resulting in the release of a hormone called adrenaline. 

This surge of adrenaline is what stimulates the body, causing an immediate release of glucose and increasing your heart rate, breathing activity, and blood pressure.

Nicotine exposure also makes the pancreas gland produce less insulin, causing a slight increase in blood sugar or glucose. 

Nicotine as a sedative

Nicotine also has an indirect impact on the brain. In a similar way to drugs like heroin or cocaine, nicotine causes dopamine — a brain chemical that affects emotions, movements, and sensations of pleasure and pain — to be released in certain regions of the brain. These increased dopamine levels then leave you feeling happier and more satisfied, adding to that ‘kick’ experience. 

However, as you build up more of a tolerance to nicotine over time, you will often require a higher dose to enjoy the same effects. 

Depending on the dose you take, nicotine can also act as a sedative. This is because, once it reaches the brain, it can trigger the release of beta-endorphin — a hormone known for its ability to reduce anxiety, ease emotional distress and create a sense of well-being that makes it easier to get to sleep. 

The benefits of nicotine

While nicotine is mainly associated with the harmful effects of smoking, it can also offer certain benefits. These include: 

  • Increased levels of alertness, euphoria and relaxation
  • Improved concentration and memory — due to increased activity of the acetylcholine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters 
  • Reduced anxiety — due to increased levels of beta-endorphin, which reduces anxiety

The side effects of nicotine

Nicotine can cause a wide range of side effects across several organs and systems of the human body. These largely impact the brain, heart and gastrointestinal system, causing a variety of signs and symptoms that it’s important to look out for. 

Our preventative health assessments are a great way of doing exactly that. 

If you are a smoker and you experience any of the symptoms listed below, please get in touch with us. Having a health assessment will allow us to identify any pre-existing or unknown health conditions and help find the right treatment plan for you. 

Side effects on the brain

  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Irregular and disturbed sleep
  • Bad dreams and nightmares
  • Possible blood restriction

Side effects on the gastrointestinal system

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Indigestion
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Diarrhoea
  • Heartburn

Side effects on the heart

  • Altered heart rate and rhythm 
  • Increased risk of blood clots and atherosclerosis (a condition in which fatty materials build up in your arteries, causing them to become narrowed or blocked, and making it difficult for blood to flow through)
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Enlarged aorta 
  • Increased risk of coronary artery disease and stroke

Nicotine exposure through vaping

Vaping is a relatively recent phenomenon that involves inhaling a vapour created by using an electronic cigarette (e-cigarette). 

It is becoming an increasingly popular trend amongst younger generations, with many people now using it as an alternative to smoking. 

However, using an e-cigarette will still often expose you to nicotine — the highly addictive chemical found in tobacco — and can result in the same variety of side effects listed above. 

Depending on the country you live in (or where you buy your e-cigarettes), vaping may even expose you to several other dangerous chemicals, each of which can create various health complications and potentially harm the body. These include: 

  • Diacetyl – a food additive used to deepen e-cigarette flavours that can also damage small passageways in the lungs
  • Formaldehyde – a toxic chemical that can cause lung disease and contribute to heart disease
  • Acrolein – a chemical more commonly used as a weed killer that can damage the lungs

UK regulations require producers to provide ingredient information and do not permit certain compounds such as formaldehyde, acrolein and acetaldehyde in e-cigarettes or e-cigarette liquids sold in the UK. However, markets may not be as stringent.

It is also worth noting that although regulations are more strict in the UK around ingredients, we simply do not know enough about the potential risks of e-cigarette use.  

What other health complications can be caused by vaping?

Vaping using an e-cigarette can lead to several health-related issues

Bronchiolitis obliterans, for example, is more commonly known as ‘popcorn lung’ and is associated with an inflammatory obstruction of the lung’s tiniest airways called bronchioles. 

When these bronchioles become damaged and inflamed by chemical particles or respiratory infections, this can lead to extensive scarring that eventually blocks the airways. One of the chemicals known to cause popcorn lung is diacetyl, which is often found in most e-cigarette liquids.

Lipoid pneumonia is also commonly associated with e-cigarette use. This condition is caused when fat or oil gets into the lungs, causing the air sacs to become inflamed and fill with fluid. Since e-cigarette liquids often contain oils, this explains the link between vaping and certain cases of lipoid pneumonia.

Vaping can also potentially lead to a collapsed lung, also known as pneumothorax. 

Collapsed lungs are typically caused by an abnormal accumulation of air in the space between the lungs and the chest cavity, but can also happen when air blisters on the top of the lungs rupture. These blisters are normally harmless unless they burst, which both smoking and vaping have been shown to increase the risk of causing.

Vaping and lung cancer

The World Health Organisation labels e-cigarettes as ‘undoubtedly harmful’ and recommends that they should not be used and, at the very least, be heavily regulated. 

This is because many of the chemicals commonly found in e-cigarette liquids in some countries, such as formaldehyde, nitrosamines and toluene, have carcinogenic properties which, over time, can cause lung cancer

We will never know the damage of newly introduced cancer and disease ‘risk factors’ until they have had time to be monitored and tested — and by that time, it may be too late for people who have already experienced serious illness from vaping.

Book a health assessment

If you are concerned about the effects that smoking might have or have already had, on your health, the safest way to check is by booking a health assessment with us at Echelon Health. 

Having a health assessment is the only way to discover what is going on inside your body before it is too late. The earlier you can detect a health condition, the earlier you can get treated and the higher your likelihood of survival will be. 

To find out more about the types of scans and health assessments we have available, please contact our team at your earliest convenience. As the world’s leading provider of Preventative Health Assessments, we have the expertise required to help you live a long and healthy life.