Is Nicotine Bad for You?

Tobacco leaves backlit by sunset in tobacco field

Nicotine by itself is not harmful within reasonable limits of consumption. Nicotine consumption may increase the speed of sensory information processing, relieve stress, anxiety, and panic attacks, and more.

When we think of nicotine, we most often associate it with tobacco and smoking. This, however, alludes to the belief that nicotine is the harmful substance that makes cigarettes deadly. This is not true. Additionally, that nicotine is associated with the cancer-causing attributes of smoking, which is also untrue. Nicotine, in and of itself, is not a harmful substance unless taken in large quantities. Used in moderate levels, nicotine actually boasts some significant health benefits.

The little-known facts surrounding nicotine is also why, in some cases, NRTs, or nicotine replacement therapies, are slower to catch on. With the onset of gums, patches, inhalers, and other alternative nicotine solutions, the number of smokers turning to these products are learning the truth about nicotine. Yes, nicotine can be addictive. However, nicotine is no more addictive than caffeine and is no more dangerous in suggested doses.

What is Nicotine?

Nicotine is a parasympathomimetic alkaloid, and is a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) agonist. Nicotine is produced by plants in the nightshade family, Solanaceae. According to the Sol Genomics Network, nightshades are comprised of more than 3,000 species including Coffea arabica, which produces coffee beans – which contains caffeine. Caffeine and nicotine are very similar. They are both stimulants and are both in the same family of plants. They are closely related cousins. Below is a chart which describes the closeness of the two plants, Coffea arabica and Nicotiana tabacum:

Is Nicotine Only Found in Tobacco?

No. Nicotine is found in many plants of the nightshade family. Nicotine is most heavily found in the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum. However, this is not the only plant which produces nicotine. According to Science Daily, nicotine is found in the leaves of plants such as tomato, green pepper, eggplant, potato, and more. In fact, some studies suggest that eating some of these foods that contain small amounts of edible nicotine, such as the amounts found in peppers, may reduce the risk of contracting Parkinson’s disease. “Vegetable consumption in general did not affect Parkinson’s disease risk, but as consumption of edible Solanaceae increased, Parkinson’s disease risk decreased, with peppers displaying the strongest association.”

Is Nicotine by Itself Harmful?

Nicotine by itself is not harmful within reasonable limits of consumption. A cigarette contains between 1 and 2mg of nicotine. A pack contains about 20-40mg of nicotine. Therefore, an individual that smokes two packs per day would be ingesting between 40-80mg of nicotine in a single day. On average, nicotine gum delivers approximately 2-4mg of nicotine per piece, at a rate of 1 piece every 1-2 hours. This can average out to be up to 64mg of nicotine ingested per day. These are safe levels of consumption. There is some debate as to the amount that is considered lethal. However, it is considered that possibly 60mg or greater in one dose in an undiluted, concentrated formula could be fatal.

Damage is Cumulative

It’s a misconception that cigarettes labeled as “lights” or “milds” are somehow safer than other cigarettes. As a popular joke about those products goes, there’s no such thing as light or mild cancer! Light or mild in describing cigarettes actually refers to the taste of the tobacco, not in the concentration of the nicotine within the tobacco.

In 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a law stating that the Food and Drug Administration had the authority to regulate all tobacco products. As part of this legislation, the FDA also cracked down on the tobacco industry’s marketing efforts, and tobacco companies can no longer refer to cigarettes as “mild” or “light,” largely because of the misconception that labeling created, which suggested that such cigarettes were less dangerous.

Although there is no safe level of nicotine, it appears that the damage from nicotine consumption adds up over time. The more cigarettes that you smoke and the longer that you’re a smoker, the more affected you will be by nicotine.

Nicotine Side Effects

There are countless side effects of nicotine, most are common but not very dangerous while a few uncommon ones can be hazardous. Moreover, some nicotine effects are dependent on the way you take it. For example, skin rashes, red patches, swelling or itchiness are caused by using nicotine patches; mouth, tooth, jaw, or neck pain are usually attributed to chewing tobacco; and watery eyes, cough, and lung irritation occur mainly as a result of smoking tobacco.

Severe Side Effects of Nicotine

If you experience any of these side effects, you should seek prompt medical help. Usually, these occur after an overdose and can have grave consequences on your health, if not treated in time.

  • Fast or uneven heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures
  • Severe rash or swelling

Common Side Effects of Nicotine

Common nicotine side effects appear when you initially start taking nicotine and gradually disappear as your body gets accustomed to it. While the common side effects might not be dangerous, but you should still talk to your doctor if any of these persists or starts to get worse.

  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Heartburn
  • Watery eyes
  • Sudden change in tastes
  • Dry mouth
  • Acid or sour stomach
  • Hiccups or belching
  • Throat sores or mouth sores, blisters, or irritation
  • Upset stomach, nausea or vomiting
  • Mouth, tooth, jaw, or neck pain
  • Problems with teeth
  • Unusual tiredness or weakness

Negative Heart Effects

The real danger in nicotine is in the effects it has on your health, especially in large amounts and over time. You also need to take your personal health history into consideration when evaluating the risks of nicotine. If you are already diabetic or have a family history of diabetes, smoking is an especially dangerous habit to take up. Nicotine raises your blood sugar, which can make it much harder to control your diabetes if you’re already diabetic, or it can be the factor that tips the balance between being pre-diabetic and developing full blown diabetes. When you’re diabetic, poor blood sugar control significantly increases your other risks from the disease, including heart attacks and stroke.

Nicotine also raises your blood pressure, which further increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The stimulant effect that nicotine gives you is responsible for that slight “buzz” feeling, which can be pleasurable in the sense of boosting your energy, but it also causes your heart to beat harder and faster.  When your heart beats harder and faster on an everyday basis, eventually it causes your blood pressure to go up. High blood pressure isn’t just a harmless state, either: it’s a sign that your heart has to work too hard just to perform the daily functions it needs to do to keep you alive.

In this case, it’s not the smoking that causes the changes to your blood sugar and blood pressure, it’s the nicotine itself. If you were to switch to using a nicotine patch or smokeless tobacco (also called chew or dip) instead, for example, you would still have the same harmful effects from the nicotine.

Negative Lung Effects

Nicotine has bad effects on the health of your lungs, too, although most of this risk comes from the act of smoking rather than from nicotine itself. Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your lungs, especially if you have health conditions like asthma or allergies that already compromise your lung health.

Smoking causes your airways to swell up and tighten, which makes it harder for air to get through your lungs. Cold weather has a similar effect on your lungs, which you may have noticed if you go outside to have a cigarette during the winter. The double effects of nicotine and cold weather can make you feel like you can’t breathe or get enough air.

Over time, these risks to your lungs can add up to developing serious chronic lung diseases, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), emphysema, and even lung cancer.

Preoccupation with Smoking

Nicotine is so powerfully psychologically and physically addictive that you’re always thinking about when you can have your next cigarette, even if you just had one. This causes a lot of anxiety for smokers! It’s really distracting to be in an unfamiliar or new situation where you know that you cannot maintain your normal smoking habits. For example, if you have jury duty or have to go to a family member’s house who doesn’t allow smoking, you’ll probably find that you can’t stop thinking about when you can have a cigarette again. Stress and smoking seems to be a vicious cycle, because most smokers say that it relieves their stress to have a cigarette, but smoking another one keeps the cycle in motion.

Possible Benefits

Since nicotine is a stimulant, it is known to: increase the heart rate; increase the speed of sensory information processing; increase focus and productivity; relieve stress, anxiety, and panic attacks; reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease; reduces the symptoms od ADD – and more.

One Comment

  1. Correction: cigarettes ALWAYS contain much more nicotine than stated on packs. It is so because tobacco companies only count nicotine in one form and ignore it in salt form, which is also present in large quantities. Basically, they want to “smuggle” as much as they can to hook customers up.

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