Evidence is mounting that nicotine might be the next “smart drug”.
Yep, that’s right.
Except that you won’t hear that – ever – touted in the US.
I’m not sure–at least, I don’t have anything I can prove. But I have my theories. But I’ll get to those later. Let’s start dispelling myths.
First, a little primer on nicotine itself…
Nicotine is an alkaloid that stimulates the part of the nervous system responsible for relaxation. Interestingly enough, it’s also a potent stimulant. This means that yes, it stimulates and relaxes your nervous system at the same time. It sounds very push-pull conflict-ridden, but the way it feels is much more…balancing.
Nicotine gets most of its press from tobacco, but although that’s one of the richest sources, it’s not the only source. In fact, it’s found in multiple plants of the nightshade family. You’ll probably recognize a few: tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and so on. Hell, nightshades don’t even have the monopoly on nicotine content; even cauliflower (from the cruciferous, aka brassica family) has a bit of nicotine.
Yep, eat your veggies, placate your Nic-Fit. Win-win!
Nicotine is not addictive.
Yep, you read that right, too. I’ll get to that later as well.
Nicotine serves a purpose in these plants. It’s the plants’ major defense mechanism, to prevent them from being eaten by other animals and bugs…and even fungus. Animals, bugs, and fungus don’t like nicotine much; it tastes bitter and it’s toxic to them. It is indeed toxic to us, too – the conventional “wisdom” is correct about that point – but only when taken in much larger doses than people think. The bigger the animal (and humans are relatively big animals, in the grand scheme of things), the more of it we can withstand without any harm being done.
Guess what? Caffeine works the same way. In fact, caffeine and nicotine come from the same basic molecular family. Which explains why they trip (work on, stimulate, activate) the same receptors in the human brain.
Nicotine boosts brain function.
Yep, that’s right, too. Studies have been done to characterize nicotine’s beneficial effects on immediate (short-term) and long-term memory, sensory processing, alertness, attention span, learning, and memory, ADHD, and mood enhancement. Coordination has improved after taking nicotine, including handwriting improvement, and so does vigilance (which could improve safety, especially when driving). It speeds up reaction time. And it’s also an appetite suppressant.
Nicotine, when extracted and set free from the tobacco plant itself, also seems to be able to treat and/or even prevent neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, Alzheimer’s (and milder cognitive impairment), anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia. And it’s becoming considered neuroprotective, meaning that it protects brain and nerve cells.
Why? What does nicotine do?
Nicotine lights up the brain by activating or switching on the aptly-named nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, a super-family of sensors of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in the brain. Acetylcholine plays crucial roles in memory, learning, digestion, and the hot-topic neuroplasticity, the continual, lifelong process of wiring and rewiring the brain – aka, the ability to teach an “old dog” (the developed brain) “new tricks”.
But the action doesn’t just stop with Acetylcholine; there’s more. It looks like these nicotinic acetylcholine receptors also influence the functions of GABA (a relaxing neurotransmitter), dopamine (responsible for pleasure, focus, and motivation), serotonin (crucial for digestion, pain management, contentment/happiness, and sleep), glutamate (aka glutamic acid) (needed for activation of the nervous system and also important in learning and memory), and norepinephrine (needed for wakefulness, vigilance, and rising to action).
This means that nicotine stimulates practically every major neurotransmitter needed for brain function. Without these, the brain doesn’t work well. It’s interesting how many disorders and obstacles to a decent quality of life can actually be traced back to dysfunctions and shortages in these neurotransmitters. A lack of GABA can manifest as anxiety, anxiety disorders, and panic attacks. A shortage of serotonin results in depression and pain syndromes. Low Glutamate has been seen in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Dopamine insufficiency leads to anger-based depression, lack of focus, attention deficits, impaired motivation, and Parkinsonism. A deficiency of norepinephrine is often attributed to the malfunction of a particular enzyme, which is now being studied with interest in disorders like schizophrenia, depression, and migraine headaches.
Nicotine might theoretically treat and/or prevent these issues. All of them.
Did I mention that there are very few safety risks with pure nicotine?
OK – consider it mentioned. 😉
(Yep, you read that right, too. Man, we’re just dispelling all kinds of myths tonight!)
And did I mention that it’s not actually addictive by itself??
I kid you not. Nicotine gets blamed for being addictive, but researchers have actually had a tough time proving that pure nicotine is actually dependency-forming. Nicotine only becomes addictive when it’s combined with other chemicals, like acetaldehyde, myosmine, or anabasine – all being other alkaloids found in tobacco itself.
Pure nicotine, though, has a mildly pleasant effect, but researchers can’t seem to get lab rats addicted to it.
The only bad thing about nicotine is that it usually comes embedded inside tobacco.
And the risks don’t stop with tobacco, either…
For decades, cigarette companies added almost 600 chemicals – on purpose – to the tobacco in order to make them more addictive, by dilating airways to allow for deeper–and quicker inhalation, have addictive properties–either on their own or when combined with nicotine, and/or to slow down nicotine metabolism in order to increase exposure.
Many of these chemicals are toxic and dangerous, including (but not limited to) formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, lead, cadmium, ammonia, benzene, nitrosamines, carbon monoxide, radioactive elements like uranium (yay–not), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (which are carcinogenic).
With pure nicotine, you don’t have to worry about that.
Are there downsides to nicotine use?
Well, it’s toxic in high doses. But so are a lot of other chemicals not considered problematic. Toxicity doesn’t exactly deter the American public from consuming the substance. (Just look at caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners/flavors/colors, flavor enhancers, and the like; these don’t even have to have warning labels; hell, manufacturers can hide these under the nebulous “natural flavors” on their ingredient labels and call it good–except alcohol, that is. Yet, any one of these can have toxic effects on the body, especially when taken in too large a dose at once, and some don’t even require large doses to produce deleterious effects.)
Some side effects include insomnia (for some), loose stools/diarrhea (been there, done that, sorry for the TMI), and nausea if you’ve never used it before and you take too much too fast/too soon.
But addiction isn’t one of them.
Cancer isn’t, either. Nicotine has not been proven to cause any cancer in humans.
I look at nicotine as a brain-boosting supplement, like acetylcholine, Vitamin B-complex, magnesium, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, caffeine (such as in green tea, coffee), etc. It’s the alkaloid extract of an herb, a plant that grows in the ground.
The interesting thing is, many of the research papers that have uncovered this information actually originated in Europe, not the United States.
At the beginning of this post, I had promised to spill my theories as to why.
Here are my theories…
Well, according to one of the first articles I liked to, this one, it looks like nicotine might could “cure all that ails the brain”. It might even prevent it.
Currently, who wins when people lose their brains?
Do not, under any circumstances, underestimate just how powerful a force pharmaceutical companies are, or just how much influence they hold over legislative policies and the quality of life for a vast majority of individuals in this country.
By the year 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) established that Americans consume over 50% of the world’s pharmaceuticals. Despite the fact that we make up only 5% of the world’s population.
Obvs, we USians are a pretty precious herd of cattle – a little pan of gold for the drug
lords–ahem–I mean companies. At 5% of the world’s population, we are indeed a little pan of gold. But at 50+% of the consumption, we’re pretty valuable. Each one of us that decides not to (or can get by with not having to) take a drug, that has a bigger impact on the drug companies; if they lose a significant portion of us, their sales show a steeper decline down the tubes.
Thus, it’s of great interest to them to keep us penned in the designated cattle area, and vow never to let this information get out to us. The news channels (all three of them now, down from 50 in the 1990s) get their news from two whole sources: Reuters and Associated Press. Those same channels can obtain up to 70% of their ad revenue from the direct-to-consumer advertising by drug companies. (See where this is going?)
So, you can bet that with these potential cataclysmic consequences, they’re not exactly going to allow that information to reach the masses via mass media.
Another theory involves the fact that the organ (and the function thereof) that we’re talking about here is the brain itself, the central processing unit (CPU), if you will, of the body. Our qualities of life are only as healthy as our brains. We only function as well as our brain does. This particular subject would be beyond the scope of this post, but let’s just say that to boost the cognition of the average Joe (or Jane, or Jamie) would not be in the best interest of Powers That Be who would like to remain in their exalted position. I might elaborate on this point in a future post.
And yet another theory involves the tobacco companies themselves. Up until this point, nicotine has been thrown under the bus, taking the fall for all of the other chemicals. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that congressional hearings were held and a whole avalanche of information came tumbling down about the additives purposefully added to cigarettes for reasons that aren’t exactly becoming to the industry. (Under pressure, Phillip Morris, a major cigarette manufacturer in the US, did its own analysis of the chemicals used, which came up grossly short and misleading when reviewed by real scientists, and not paid-off corporate shills.)
To blame nicotine itself takes the spotlight off of the other chemicals, saving face (what little is left) of the tobacco companies after their shenanigans. “Hey–don’t blame us for the addictive quality! It’s a natural component of tobacco itself. It’s already in there. It’s the plant’s fault you’re hooked!”
To suddenly absolve nicotine of any addictive blame would then shine that glaring spotlight back on the other additives….and thus, the tobacco companies themselves. After battling decades of PR nightmare, this just might be the very information that would do them in. IF it got out.
But who’s looking? A few scientists (more and more of them, though), and a couple of desperate, open-minded lay-people seeking the advice of Dr Google.
And thorns in conventional wisdom’s side, lone warriors against the world, shouting into the roar of the hurricane, like me and probably many others who mainstream society would just as soon disappear.
Except that I’m still here.
And I’m still hollering. And I’ll keep hollering. For the six awesome people who will get it and cheer along with me. 🙂
Nicotine As a Smart Drug – Examined Existence (you’ll want a popup blocker or NoScript for this site)
Nicotine As Therapy – Proceedings From the National Library of Science (PLoS)
Nicotine, the Wonder Drug? – Discover Magazine
The Mystery of Memory: How Memory Works – Examined Existence
What Is Working Memory in the Human Brain? – Examined Existence
How To Improve Your Concentration – Examined Existence
What’s In a Cigarette? – American Lung Association
History of Tobacco – HealthLiteracy.org
The Health Consequences of Smoking: 50 Years of Progress (A Report of the Surgeon General) – PubMed.gov Bookshelf