Nicotine demystified

a month ago

There are many stories about nicotine. The nicotine in many vape products actively helps people to quit smoking. We will go over its history and cover some of the biggest question marks on the subject. © Marco Barneveld

There are many stories about nicotine. The nicotine in many vape products actively helps people to quit smoking. Many studies show that vaping is a better alternative. But what exactly is nicotine? Well, we will go over its history and cover some of the biggest question marks on the subject.

The history of smoking and nicotine

It was quite the rollercoaster, the discovery of the New World in 1492 by Columbus. Both the locals and the explorers were shocked when meeting each other for the first time. A culture clash of alien habits and unique lives.

Those explorers brought something back from this strange New World. In those times there was little choice in foods to eat in Europe. Porridge, oatmeal and some cabbage or onions if you were lucky were some the only things on the menu. Then trans-Atlantic trade started picking up and soon potatoes, eggplant, chili and bell peppers, tomatoes and many other New World products found their way into our diet. Food became a party and coincidentally, the most popular novelties were all plants from the Nightshade family, or as scientists call them, Solanaceae. Do you want to know another Nightshade plant? Well, tobacco.

What all these plants have in common is nicotine. You hear it right. Potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant, all contain nicotine. To a lesser extent than in tobacco leaves and mostly in the stems and leaves, but still.

The plants produce alkaloids to protect themselves, as Alkaloid has a paralyzing effect on our nervous system. For this reason, alkaloids are used as a medicine to reduce consciousness or pain. Other alkaloids are, for example, morphine, caffeine, cocaine, codeine, nicotine and quinine. Nicotine also occurs in the leaves of the coca plant.

The first human users of nicotine were probably members of the Mayan civilizations in Central America. When the Maya culture fell apart, the disintegrated tribes took the tobacco to Southern and Northern America.

With tobacco crossing borders regularly with trans-Atlantic trade, the French ambassador to Portugal Jean Nicot de Villemain started looking into the product and stated in 1560 that it offered a remedy for all kinds of different diseases. It was this Jean Nicot to whom we owe the word nicotine. Once the ghost was out of the bottle, nicotine rapidly spread throughout the rest of the world.

For centuries nicotine was ingested by chewing, sniffing and smoking tobacco. Until the American, Herbert A. Gilbert invented the first E-cigarette in 1963, the birth of the vaping. He designed the prototype of an electric cigarette by concluding that uniform evaporation of a nicotine solution worked best with an incandescent spiral that was electrically heated.

What is nicotine and how does it enter our body?

The substance is a hygroscopic, colorless, oily liquid that can be mixed very well with water. The substance can be extracted from tobacco by soaking the leaves in water for 12 hours, after which the nicotine floats to the surface. The substance tastes bitter and is strongly alkaline.

Nicotine can enter the body in three ways:

• Through the lungs while smoking tobacco, with all the associated health risks, or by vaping. Which according to many studies is 95% less harmful.

• Via the mucous membranes with snus or gum by chewing it or placing it under the upper lip

• Through the skin through application of nicotine patches

Why is nicotine so addictive?

The human nervous systems contain receptors that are sensitive to nicotine. These receptors, when exposed to nicotine, are going to ask for more. When nicotine molecules reach the brain, they attach themselves to receptors, which are actually intended for neurotransmitters. This leads to massive emissions of the substance’s serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. These substances are responsible for the exchange of information in the brain and cause a pleasant feeling. Especially dopamine and serotonin provide a feeling of happiness. With the first use of nicotine, adrenaline is quickly produced by the body. A number of effects of nicotine are therefore actually caused by the adrenaline.

With prolonged use, one becomes dependent on nicotine and a persistent addiction arises. Regular users of nicotine often develop a physical dependence on the substance. Stopping the use of nicotine can cause withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms peak after about 2-3 days, and usually disappear after 2 weeks, because the nicotine has then disappeared from the body entirely.

Is nicotine dangerous?

Despite many studies, nicotine has not been shown to be carcinogenic. Tobacco smoking causes cancer due to more than 7.000 poisonous chemicals present in the smoke. It is however, highly addictive.

In high doses, nicotine causes nausea and vomiting. 40-65 milligrams of pure nicotine can be fatal for people (especially non-smokers). In its most terrible form, nicotine poisoning can lead to breathing paralysis with death as a possible consequence, but vapers build up considerable resistance to nicotine poisoning, so it is very uncommon among both vapers and smokers alike.

Bottom line, nicotine got its bad name due to its association with smoking addiction, which produces an enormous health risk and kills 480,000 worldwide per year.

Is nicotine healthy?

Scientists and biotech companies are continuously developing new drugs that are good for the brain, bowel movements, blood vessels and the immune system. Interestingly enough, one of their biggest research subjects are the properties of nicotine and how it can positively impact our wellbeing.

Research shows that nicotine stimulates and regulates the release of many chemical substances in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. At present, nicotine or nicotine receptors-based drugs are both already on the market and are being developed. They help with wound healing, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, Tourette syndrome and ADHD.

"Nicotine has a big stigma with the way it usually comes in: through tobacco smoke," says Don deBethizy, CEO of Targacept, an American biotech company in the Wired magazine. "But the substance itself and the research into how nicotine works on the brain offer great promises for improving physical and mental health."