What is Nicotine?

Blog Post created by Thomas3.20.2010 on Sep 26, 2013

Nicotine is a nitrogen-containing chemical - an alkaloid, which is made by several types of plants, including the tobacco plant. Nicotine is also produced synthetically.Nicotiana tabacum, the type of nicotine found in tobacco plants, comes from the nightshade family. Red peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes are examples of the nightshade family.

Apart from being a substance found in tobacco products, nicotine is also an antiherbivore chemical, specifically for the elimination of insects - it used to be extensively used as an insecticide.

Pharmacologic effects - when humans, mammals and most other types of animals are exposed to nicotine, it increases their heart rate, heart muscle oxygen consumption rate, and heart stroke volume - these are known as pharmacologic effects.

Psychodynamic effects - the consumption of nicotine is also linked to raised alertness, euphoria, and a sensation of being relaxed.

Addictive properties - nicotine is highly addictive. People who regularly consume nicotine and then suddenly stop experience withdrawal symptoms, which may include cravings, a sense of emptiness, anxietydepression, moodiness, irritability, and inattentiveness. The American Heart Association says that nicotine (from smoking tobacco) is one of the hardest substances to quit - at least as hard as heroin.

According to a report published by the Massachusetts Dept of Public Health, tobacco companies steadily increased the nicotine content of their cigarettes from 1998 to 2004, by approximately 10%. The higher the nicotine dose in each cigarette, the harder it is for the regular smoker to quit. The Department accused the tobacco companies of deliberately making their customers more addicted, so that they could secure sales. Doctors complain that this business strategy of getting customers more hooked undermines the success rates of smoking cessation therapies

In November 2012, tobacco companies were ordered by US District Judge Gladys Kessler to inform consumers that they had deliberately manipulated their cigarettes so that smokers would become more addicted.

According to Medilexicon's medical dictionary:

Nicotine is "A poisonous volatile alkaloid derived from tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) and responsible for many of the effects of tobacco; it first stimulates (small doses), then depresses (large doses) at autonomic ganglia and myoneural junctions. Its principal urinary metabolite is cotinine.

Nicotine is an important tool in physiologic and pharmacologic investigation, is used as an insecticide and fumigant, and forms salts with most acids."

Another study carried out at the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nicotine consumption makes cocaine more addictive. (Link to article)

Nicotine's molecular formula is C10H14N2.

How did nicotine get its name?

The French ambassador in Portugal, Jean Nicot de Villemain, sent tobacco and seeds to Paris from Brazil in 1560, saying that tobacco had medicinal uses. From his name came the Latin name for the tobacco plant - Nicotianana tabacum.

Nicot sent snuff - powdered tobacco that is sniffed through the nostril - to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France at the time. He said it would treat her migraines. Nicot, who suffered fromheadaches, said the snuff helped relieve symptoms. The Queen tried it and said it was effective. She said that tobacco should be called the Herba Regina (the herb of the queen).

In 1828, Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt, a doctor, and Karl Ludwig Reinmann, a chemist, both from Germany, first isolated nicotine from the tobacco plant. They said it was a poison.

Louise Melsens, a Belgian chemist and physicist, described nicotine's empirical formula in 1843, and Adolf Pinner and Richard Wolffenstein, both chemists from Germany, described its structure in 1893.

In 1904, nicotine was first synthesized by A. Pictet and P. Crepieux.

Side effects of nicotine

The pharmacokinetics of nicotine

Pharmacokinetics refers to what the body does to a substance, while pharmacodynamics refers to what a substance does to the body.

After inhaling tobacco smoke, nicotine rapidly enters the bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier and is inside the brain within eight to twenty seconds. Within approximately two hours after entering the body, half of the nicotine has gone (elimination half-life of about two hours).

How much nicotine may enter a smoker's body depends on:

  • what type of tobacco is being used
  • whether or not the smoker inhales the smoke
  • whether a filter is used, and what type of filter it is

Tobacco products that are chewed, placed inside the mouth, or snorted tend to release considerably larger amounts of nicotine into the body than smoking.

Nicotine is broken down (metabolized) in the liver, mostly by cytochrome P450 enzymes. Cotinine is the main metabolite.

What is the nicotine "effect"?

Nicotine is both a sedative and a stimulant. When our bodies are exposed to nicotine, we experience a "kick"- this is partly caused by nicotine's stimulation of the adrenal glands, resulting in the release of adrenaline (apinephrine). This surge of adrenaline stimulates the body, there is an immediate release of glucose, as well as an increase in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.

Nicotine also makes the pancreas produce less insulin, resulting in slight hyperglycemia (high blood sugar or glucose).

Indirectly, nicotine causes dopamine to be released in the pleasure and motivation areas of the brain. A similar effect occurs when people take heroin or cocaine. The drug user experiences pleasure. Dopamine is a brain chemical that affects emotions, movements, and sensations of pleasure and pain. Dopamine neurotransmitters are located in the substantia nigra, deep in the middle of the brain. Put simply, if your brain dopamine levels rise, your sensation of contentment is higher.

Depending on the nicotine dose taken and the individual's nervous system arousal, nicotine can also act as a sedative.

Tolerance - the more nicotine we have, the higher our tolerance becomes, and we require higher doses to enjoy the same initial effects. As most of the nicotine in the body is gone during sleep, tolerance may have virtually disappeared first thing in the morning. That is why many smokers say their first cigarette of the day is the best, or strongest. As the day develops, nicotine has less of an effect, because of tolerance build-up.

Concentration and memory - studies have shown that nicotine appears to improve memory and concentration. Experts say that this is due to an increase in acetylcholine and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine also increases the sensation of wakefulness (arousal).

Reduced anxiety - nicotine results in increased levels of beta-endorphin, which reduces anxiety.


How common is nicotine addiction?

Humans get their nicotine "fix" primarily through smoking tobacco, but can also obtain it by snorting snuff, chewing tobacco, or taking NRTs (nicotine replacement therapies), such as nicotine gum, lozenges, patches and inhalators.

By far, the most popular way of consuming nicotine is by smoking cigarettes. Worldwide, over one billion people are regular tobacco smokers, according to WHO (World Health Organization).

Smoking in the USA - Approximately 23% of adult males and 18% of adult females in the USA are smokers. Over 400,000 thousand premature deaths in the country are caused by cigarette companies, nearly 20% of all deaths. More people die as a result of smoking than all the deaths due to HIV, vehicle accidents, murders, suicides, alcohol abuse and drug abuse combined.

Smoking in the UK - approximately 24% of the UK adult population are smokers, according to the NHS (National Health Service) - 25% of males and 23% of females. 114,000 smokers die prematurely in the UK every year.

The NHS, UK, says that about 70% of all British smokers would like to quit, but believe they cannot. Half of all smokers in the country eventually manage to give up successfully.

Cigarette smoking originates from the European exploration and colonization of the Americas, where tobacco was common. Smoking tobacco soon became popular in Europe, and then spread to the rest of the world.

Giving up smoking reduces heart attack risk to lifetime non-smokers' level - although quitting smoking cannot reverse damage to the arteries, it can reduce the risk of heart attack and death to levels found in people who have never been smokers, researchers from New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College found.