Did you know that nicotine is a drug? In fact, it affects the brain in ways similar to other drugs, such as cocaine or heroin. Each of these drugs affects the reward system in the brain, often making us feel better – at least for the moment. This is important information as researchers continually work to discover why nicotine is so addictive.
Nicotine is one of the most abused drugs and, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is the single most preventable cause of disease in this country. Unlike other drugs, people don’t have to use cigarettes to get sick. Approximately 38,000 deaths each year are the result of secondhand smoke.
Still, even with all of this information, people find it incredibly difficult to quit smoking, even after they may have successfully completed a treatment program for other, mind-altering drugs of addiction. The fact remains that it is possible to quit smoking and using tobacco with the right kind of help and the right frame of mind. You can put down your cigarettes, overcome nicotine addiction, and embrace a healthier, more active lifestyle.
The Mechanics of Addiction
Drug addiction starts working by building a tolerance in your body and brain. The more of a drug, including nicotine, that you consume, the more tolerance builds up in your system. You need more nicotine to get the same effect that your previous use brought. The nicotine from cigarettes is absorbed through the lungs and into the bloodstream where it is carried through to your brain. Once in the brain, the nicotine molecules, which look very much like the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, attach to the acetylcholine receptors. This immediately affects breathing and heart rate, along with memory and your ability to learn. This process also stimulates production of dopamine, another neurotransmitter that is responsible for pleasure and reward. This pleasure-and-reward mechanism of smoking is part of the reason why quitting is so incredibly difficult for some people.
The Genealogy of Addiction
You probably know someone who has quit smoking “cold turkey” and never had a problem with it, right? They brag about how they smoked for years and then one day, on a whim it seems, they put down the cigarette and never looked back.
There are a couple of reasons why this may be true, or they may be building up their accomplishment to a certain degree. There are people who start smoking and only smoke in social settings. They have no trouble walking away. Others may smoke a few cigarettes with friends or at a party and within a few weeks, they are fulltime, pack-a-day smokers.
The answer may lie in genetics. Just like with addiction to more illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin and prescription drugs, there is a correlation between a family history of addiction and your own addiction. People with family members who have suffered from some form of addiction are more likely to become addicted themselves. This doesn’t mean that you must become an addict – that it is written in the stars or part of your destiny. The decision to light that first cigarette is entirely up to you, and you will bear the consequences of that decision. However, once addiction sets in, the choice of whether to smoke is no longer a conscious decision. It then becomes the choice of whether to seek a treatment program that can save your life.
Why Is It Important to Quit Smoking?
Nicotine is a gateway drug. That isn’t to say that just because a person smokes cigarettes or otherwise ingests nicotine, he will immediately seek out more drugs. However, a study using mice showed that increased nicotine in the system makes a body more receptive to other drugs. If you are already in recovery for substance abuse, particularly for cocaine, the continued use of nicotine will prime your system to use cocaine again the future.
The various negative health risks are also a reason to quit smoking, of course. Tobacco causes cancer, according to studies that have been performed over the years. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, 90 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking cigarettes. If you use other forms of tobacco, however, you could also be subjecting yourself to increased risks for cancers of the mouth and throat.
*Withdrawal From Nicotine
Nicotine, like other drugs, generally causes withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it. Here are a few of the symptoms you may encounter when you decide to stop using nicotine:
- You may feel depressed or irritable.
- You may gain a few pounds.
- You may find it difficult to concentrate.
- You may experience headaches.
- You may have a serious craving for nicotine.
Everyone is different, however. You may experience some, all or none of these symptoms, depending upon the level of your addiction and the methods you choose to stop using.
Medications to Help Kick the Habit
If you are serious about quitting smoking, there are several medications on the market that have been approved to help you quit. The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health lists two distinct medications for smokers and those addicted to nicotine. The first is varenicline, which works in two ways. The first method this prescription employs is to block the reward mechanism in the brain. When the drug is introduced, the nicotine no longer has the same effect on the brain. There is no pleasure from the act of using tobacco. If the practice of smoking is no longer enjoyable, you are more likely to quit. The second way it helps you quit smoking is that the drug stimulates the same receptors in the brain that nicotine used to act on. This process helps to eliminate the withdrawal symptoms that keep many people from quitting. Because the drug does not act as strongly on the receptors in the brain as nicotine, you are less likely to build a tolerance to the new reaction.
The second medication that has been used successfully for the treatment of nicotine addiction is bupropion. This is an antidepressant that can reduce the cravings associated with withdrawal from nicotine.
In order to use either of these drugs for smoking cessation, you will need to visit a medical professional and obtain a prescription. Of course, you should never take any prescription drug that doesn’t belong to you, and you should always consult your doctor.
Over-the-Counter Smoking Remedies
There are several products available on the open market that can help you with your smoking cessation efforts. Nicotine gum contains far less nicotine than tobacco and can help you reduce the amount of nicotine you consume over several weeks. Nicotine patches allow nicotine to enter your system through your skin, and treatment using this method can last up to eight weeks in a program that steps down the strength of the patch gradually. Inhalers deliver a nicotine-laced vapor that does not contain the thousands of harmful chemicals found in cigarettes. The lozenge is similar to nicotine gum.
All of these methods are designed to help you defeat your smoking or nicotine habit; however, they are far more effective when used in conjunction with a treatment program.
In addition to the drugs currently on the market, clinical trials are currently underway that will bring a smoking vaccine to the marketplace. While the vaccine has not yet been approved by the FDA, the trials are proceeding very well and early results show that smokers who received the vaccine have had higher rates of success and longer periods of abstinence than smokers who received a placebo. This is good news for smokers, but if you’re ready to quit now, don’t wait. The sooner you quit, the better off you will be in the long run.
Behavioral Treatments for Nicotine Addiction
Some people who smoke have a very difficult time quitting without help. This does not mean that you are weak or that you have no hope of quitting. It simply means that you need to take extra steps to achieve your goals of being healthy and living an active and fulfilling life. Because nicotine is addictive, just like other drugs, you may find some benefit in a behavioral-style treatment program.
Behavioral therapy can help you determine how to avoid high-risk situations that may lead you to relapse. By developing strategies to avoid temptations and planning methods of response that will give you an alternative to smoking, you will find that you have the strength you need to remain true to your goals.
*Long-Term Effects of Nicotine Addiction
In addition to the increased risk of cancer, smoking can lead to a wide variety of chronic diseases and premature death. Here are just a few of the problems nicotine addicts may experience:
- Losing the sense of taste and smell
- Teeth discoloration
- Premature aging
- Heart disease
- Chronic bronchitis