The Science behind Nicotine Addiction Explained

Nicotine is a dangerous drug that we classify as a stimulant. That means it stimulates or speeds up one or more of the body’s systems. While this may sound like something beneficial, it does not make you faster or stronger. Instead, it puts more stress on your body than is healthy for it. Let’s look at exactly how it affects your body and what it is speeding up.

Only a smoker knows how addictive nicotine can be. If you go too long without smoking, you start feeling a familiar craving that urges you to have a cigarette. This craving feeling is intense and uncomfortable, like a really deep itch that you have to scratch. Smoking is addictive on two fronts: physical and psychological. The psychological aspect of having an addiction to smoking is actually about the habitual nature of it. However, the physical part of smoking is due to the presence of nicotine because nicotine is very addictive and causes physical dependency.

Although, quitting is not easy, it’s very much possible. Thousands of smokers have quit smoking and you can too. There is good news according to a CDC fact sheet, as of late there are more ex-smokers than current smokers.

What is Nicotine Addiction?

Nicotine is usually a colorless or in some cases yellowish liquid. Small doses of nicotine are used as a stimulant, mostly in tobacco and pesticides Nicotine is an abusable substance and in higher doses can be toxic, can interfere with the normal functioning of autonomic nerves and skeletal muscle cells.

Nicotine addiction is a dependent on the drug nicotine; however, when we say nicotine addiction, we usually refer to the addiction to tobacco products that contain nicotine. Nicotine possesses mood-altering capabilities which give the user a temporary high. This high is extremely pleasing and makes the user want to use it more and more. Put simply, once you use it long enough, you can’t stop using it. Also, those who try to quit, have unpleasant withdrawal symptoms which momentarily go away when they get a dose of nicotine.

nicotine addiction symptoms

Why is Nicotine Addictive?

According to National Institute of Drug Abuse, nicotine gets its addictive nature by activating a reward pathway in the brain’s circuitry. The chemical that makes you crave nicotine is called neurotransmitter dopamine. Long-term users experience changes in their brain induced by nicotine that lead to addiction.

Nicotine chemicalHow addictive it is depends on many factors, mainly on how it enters your body. The fastest way for a drug to have its impact is by smoking or vaping it, which is why smokers get hooked on tobacco. When you use nicotine, it takes about ten seconds to reach your brain after entering your body, as it’s instantly absorbed by your bloodstream and transported to all the organs of your body . When nicotine reaches the brain, it makes the brain release adrenaline, that gives the user a feeling of high. This feeling is extremely pleasurable but doesn’t last long. After a little while, the user feels tired and down, wanting the high again.

These craving forces the user to keep taking nicotine; however, the human body is naturally tolerant to nicotine. As you continue to take nicotine for a while, your body starts to require higher amounts of it to get the same high. This repeated cycle of nicotine cravings leads to addiction, which is very hard to break. Below are the most common triggers relapse triggers, familiar to every smoker:

The amount hormones released by your body changes when you start taking nicotine. However, when you stop, it has to readjust, which is very hard, and causes a hormone imbalance. The end result is that your body is in a continuous state of adjusting hormones after your abstinence. This state of the body is commonly known as withdrawal, which can be very hard to cope with.

Depending on the body, current state of mind, and circumstances, breaking addiction can be harder for some people than others. Several researches show that teenagers are more sensitive to nicotine and get addicted more easily. According to CDC, 90% of cigarette smokers try their first smoke by age 18, and 99% by age 26.

Nicotine Addiction vs Other Addictions

Some experts believe heroin and cocaine are the two most addictive drugs, with nicotine in the third spot. Taking a look at the ratings of different drugs published in New York Times, on Aug 2, 1994 by two highly regarded experts reveals that nicotine tops the charts when it comes to dependence, and also is the highest ranked overall drug addiction:

Rating by Dr. Jack E. Henningfield of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
(1 = Most serious  6 = Least serious)

Substance Withdrawal Reinforcement Tolerance Dependence Intoxication
Nicotine  3 4 2 1 5
Heroin  2 2 1 2 2
Cocaine  4 1 4 3 3
Alcohol  1 3 3 4 1
Caffeine 5 6 5 5 6
Marijuana 6 5 6 6 4

Rating by Dr. Neal L. Benowitz of the University of California at San Francisco[/su_table]

(1 = Most serious  6 = Least serious)

Substance Withdrawal Reinforcement Tolerance Dependence Intoxication
Nicotine 3 4 4 1 6
Heroin 2 2 2 2 2
Cocaine 3 1 1 3 3
Alcohol 1 3 4 4 1
Caffeine 4 5 3 5 5
Marijuana  5 6 5 6 4


No matter what substance you consider, there are some serious users and then there are some infrequent, amateur users. To understand how overpowering a substance can be, we can compare the percentage of people who, after having used a substance, can still contain themselves to occasional use. In his book About Addictions: Notes from Psychology, Neuroscience, and NLP, the famous author Richard Gray mentions large government surveys that show how many addicts of different substances are regular users and how many are occasional users.

Substance % Regular Users % Occasional Users
Alcohol 15 85
Cocaine 8 82
Tobacco cigarettes (nicotine) 90 10

Although there will always be a difference of opinion when it comes to the most addictive substance, it is a fact that nicotine is one of the top three, if not the topmost addictive substance.

Nicotine is it a Stimulant?

Your heart is one of the most important parts of the body to be affected by nicotine. Your heart rate can increase as part of a craving or during use, often while you are smoking. Your body reacts to the drug being introduced into your system by increasing your heart rate. As you may know, your heart needs to keep a certain rhythm to be healthy. Speeding it up during exercise is a good workout for your heart, but it is unhealthy for your heart rate to increase when you are inactive, and that is exactly the state of most people when they smoke.

This can cause long-term heart problems, which include cardiac infarction, heart disease and more. The longer you smoke, the more stress you are putting on your heart increases your risk of a heart problem.

Nicotine also stimulates your respiratory and vascular system. People who are craving nicotine may have faster breathing. Their anxiousness and nervousness caused by the nicotine can cause irregularly high breathing which in turn limits their physical abilities.

An increase of blood pressure, which is standard for nicotine users, is also dangerous. This puts your heart at risk and creates an unhealthy environment for many of your bodily systems.

It is important to understand that nicotine is both a stimulant and a sedative. While it creates stimulating effects, it also relaxes the body and creates a state of gentle euphoria. This is part of what makes it so addictive. That buzz that many smokers feel makes the other effects feel not as strong. The higher the concentrations of nicotine are, the greater the sense of euphoria will be.

Nicotine also activates the portion of the brain that rewards the body. This reward center is responsible for a lot of the motivation people feel. Regular nicotine users feel like they need that cigarette as a reward for getting through the day, surviving a few hours of work or for passing a test. They will say that the nicotine relaxes them, though in many ways it does the exact opposite. What it actually does it make them feel like they are being treated or rewarded by having that cigarette.

This causes severe addiction, and any of the people who try to quit do not succeed because of it.

Nicotine Is it Actually a Drug?

Those who say that nicotine is not a drug are likely trying to say that it is not a hard drug like cocaine or PCP. However, it is most definitely a drug, as defining drugs go, any substance that has a physiological effect on the body when ingested or otherwise deposited into the body is a drug.

What that means is that the substance changes the way the body is functioning or would function naturally. This is something that doesn’t provide anything the body needs but is introduced to change the way the body operates.

  • Nicotine falls into that category easily, because of the effects it has on the body. Let’s look at some of those effects. The physiological effects include its addictive properties, its pharmacologic effects, and its psychodynamic effects. We’ll break down each of these categories further and what those effects include.

Most people understand that nicotine is addictive. It creates both physical and mental addiction. Withdrawal from it produces a number of symptoms, including anxiousness, nervousness, shaking, moodiness, depression, inattentiveness, and cravings. Those who smoke for a while then quit find themselves struggling to overcome these side effects and beat their cravings.

It is difficult for those who have become addicted to cease their habit. They often require outside help in the form of counseling, therapy or coaching to assist them in quitting their nicotine addiction.

When small amounts of nicotine enter the body,  pharmacologic effects begin to affect it. With nicotine, these include an increased heart rate, higher chance of heart stroke and an increase in how much oxygen your body consumes. Basically, your heart is working overtime when nicotine is inside your body.

Psychodynamic effects are similar to psychological effects. They change your mental state. With nicotine, these effects are a sense of euphoria, increased awareness and a state of relaxation.

How Addictive Is Nicotine?

Humans can experience addiction in two ways: psychologically and physically. An example of psychological addiction is doing something extremely thrilling, e.g. gambling, bungee jumping, skydiving, driving too fast. These activities trigger reward centers of the brain; however, don’t have any physical impact on the body. We can relate it to classical conditioning as shown by Pavlov’s dog experiment, where dog started to associate certain signals (such as the ringing of a bell) with food and would start drooling on those signals, even when there was no food.

On the other hand, physical addictions tend to result in physical withdrawal symptoms, e.g. when a person suddenly stops drinking or taking a drug they are addicted to. What really makes nicotine extremely addictive is that it’s one of the very few addictions that has both physical and psychological impact. On top of that, it also has social impact i.e. when you meet your other smoker friends, you start getting the urge to smoke (or use vapor cigarettes). So, in addition to affecting you physiologically, nicotine also affects you socially, and this is why most experts agree that nicotine is one of, if not the, hardest addictions to break.

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