Is nicotine harmful to the body?

We all know that nicotine is addictive and is found in cigarettes, but research from the Royal Society for Public Health shows that up to 90% of people falsely think of nicotine as harmful. We’re taking a closer look at nicotine to find out why it is so addictive, how it effects the body, and how nicotine replacements like e-cigarettes can help you to quit smoking.

What is nicotine?
Nicotine is a chemical found in tobacco products, many e-liquids, and in nicotine replacement therapies. A number of plants in the nightshade family, including the tobacco plant, naturally produce nicotine as a form of defence against pests and predators, but it can also be found in small amounts in edible plants like potatoes, tomatoes, and aubergines.

It can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin and, although nicotine is addictive, it is not responsible for the harmful effects of smoking. At high enough doses it can lead to poisoning or even death, but these dosages would need to be substantially higher than those commercially available.

How does nicotine effect the body?
Nicotine increases your heart rate and the amount of oxygen your heart uses, while also increasing the levels of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure and is part of the brain’s reward system. Upon entering the body nicotine will cause a surge of endorphins which are chemicals that help to relieve stress and improve your mood.

Nicotine can reach the brain just 10 seconds after being inhaled, so the effects are rapid, but levels peak quickly so the feeling of reward and improved mood is short-lived. Continued use of nicotine changes the way the brain works, altering the reward pathways and making the user crave more to continue receiving the pleasure of the increased endorphins and dopamine. As with many other addictive substances, most people will build up a tolerance to nicotine which means that more is needed to produce the same effects, this is the reaction which drives nicotine addiction.

So, is nicotine harmful?
It is easy to see why people could think of nicotine as being harmful, due to how closely we associate nicotine with cigarettes, and cigarettes with diseases like cancer. However, nicotine by itself is fairly harmless and is actually not dissimilar to caffeine.

In the context of cigarettes, nicotine is only harmful because it is combined with the countless toxic substance that are also found in cigarettes like tar, carbon monoxide, and arsenic. Because smokers become addicted to nicotine, they continue to inhale all of these other harmful substances which can lead to a myriad of health problems including cancer and lung disease.

However, suddenly quitting smoking altogether – or going ‘cold turkey’ – can lead to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. As well as strong cravings, nicotine withdrawal can lead to difficulty sleeping, irritability, trouble concentrating, and increased appetite.

Switching to an alternative nicotine source
NHS advice is that quitting smoking is the best decision you can make for your health. Because nicotine is the substance that smokers are actually addicted to, switching to an alternative nicotine delivery system like e-cigarettes is preferable to trying to quit smoking unaided.

Nicotine containing e-liquids and nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) like patches and gum deliver a dose of nicotine without all of the other harmful substances in cigarettes. This allows you to manage your nicotine cravings and avoid withdrawal symptoms, and also to control your nicotine dose and work on decreasing it over time. For this reason, NRTs have been used for many years to help smokers quit, and can even be prescribed by your GP or local stop smoking services.

E-cigarettes are becoming an extremely popular alternative nicotine source, and Public Health England have found them to be 95% less harmful than smoking. A number of studies and a Cochrane review have actually found that e-cigarettes are twice as effective as NRTs, and they may even be available on prescription in the future.

At a glance
·Although nicotine is addictive, it is not responsible for the harmful effects of smoking
·Cigarettes contain countless toxic substance including tar, carbon monoxide, and arsenic - it is these substances that are responsible for the myriad of health issues associated with smoking
·Switching to an alternative nicotine delivery method like e-cigarettes or NRTs can help you manage your nicotine cravings without the need for tobacco