Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Nicotine - a supersheep in wolf's clothing?

Nicotine is pretty much getting the blame for the tobacco epidemic. Ask any of your friends or just random people on the street what they know about nicotine and I'm pretty sure this is the answer you'll get: Nicotine is very addictive and it's the reason people struggle to quit smoking. Some will also tell you that it will increase your blood pressure as well. This is what virtually everyone, including myself, has been saying for years and it has become a fact. It's just the way it is.

Yesterday I was reading the Asthray blog's post: Could Vaping Reduce Your Blood Pressure? It appears there is some controversy regarding this well known fact after all. One problem is that most studies on the subject have been focusing on the effects smoking has on blood pressure, not what nicotine by itself does. And then there is this: a lot of studies actually conclude that smokers have lower blood pressure, but also that smoking cessation leads to increased blood pressure. What's up with that? Part of the explanation probably lies in the fact that there is a difference in long term and short term effects. Dr. Farsalinos told the Ashtray blog this:
"There is some controversy in this area. First of all, all studies refer to smoking and not nicotine. Nicotine has immediate effects on blood pressure (acute elevation, lasting for about 15 minutes). But smoking has been associated (in some studies) with lower blood pressure. 
Moreover, some studies have shown that smoking cessation leads to elevated blood pressure. This is probably attributed to weight gain commonly observed after smoking cessation. On the other side, there are some other studies showing opposite findings.”
Clearly, more research is needed in this area, and Dr. Farsalinos is of course planning to do this.

Clicking on some of the links in the Ashtray blog post will also make you question the other well known fact that I mentioned in the beginning of this post: the common knowledge that nicotine is very addictive. This article from Tampa Bay Times discusses a study that not only finds nicotine safe, but it also seems to have some positive cognitive effects. The phenomenon that smokers are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease have long puzzled scientists as smoking causes cardiovascular diseases that should actually increase the likeliness of developing Alzheimer's. What the scientists at Vanderbilt University's Center for Cognitive Medicine found was that it is nicotine that actually protects people from this awful disease. And it doesn't stop there. It seems protect against Parkinson's disease as well, and it boosts the cognitive function in older people showing signs of age-related mental decline. What an awful drug to be addicted to, right? If you're addicted that is. According to Dr. Paul Newhouse, the director of Vanderbilt University's Center for Cognitive Medicine, nicotine by itself isn't very addictive, it requires assistance from other substances found in tobacco to get people hooked:
"People won't smoke without nicotine in cigarettes, but they won't take nicotine by itself. Nicotine is not reinforcing enough. That's why FDA agreed nicotine could be sold over the counter. No one wants to take it because it's not pleasant enough by itself. And it's hard to get animals to self-administer nicotine the way they will with cocaine."
In their extensive research into beneficial effects of nicotine on the brain they have used nicotine patches as a way to administer the nicotine to the subjects of their studies, and according to Dr. Newhouse it has virtually no side-effect:
"It seems very safe even in nonsmokers. In our studies we find it actually reduces blood pressure chronically. And there were no addiction or withdrawal problems, and nobody started smoking cigarettes. The risk of addiction to nicotine alone is virtually nil."
Oh... there the blood pressure comes up again. It certainly will be very interesting to see what Dr. Farsalinos finds in his upcoming study on the subject. And notice this: nobody started smoking cigarettes. Nicotine itself is in other words not a gateway to smoking either... surprised?

Isn't the well known fact that nicotine is very addictive true then? I've heard this before, but have to admit I kind of dismissed it. Cause I tried e-cigs without nicotine and I do feel that only the nicotine containing ones stops my cravings for cigarettes. So it makes very much sense that nicotine is addictive. But Dr. Newhouse is not the only one that says nicotine isn't addictive. Peter Killeen, emeritus professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has studied the subject and he says the same thing: There is no such thing as nicotine addiction (read the article for an in depth explanation of his studies). Again, it's nicotine in combination with other chemicals that creates the addiction.

Try to google "nicotine benefits". Start clicking and you'll discover there are more scientists saying the same things:
  • Nicotine by its self is not very addictive. They refer to studies showing that NRT's are not very addictive, and the fact that they can't seem to get animals hooked on nicotine alone. Where is the proof that nicotine by itself is addictive?
  • Nicotine seems to have a lot of positive effects on the brain. 
The first hit I got when I did the suggested google search was this: This adds ADHD and schizophrenia to the list of disorders that might be treated with nicotine. And it may also have a positive effect on people without any disorders. Psychologist Jennifer Rusted of the University of Sussex in Britain calls the drug “the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have.” According to Rusted my former smoking habit, and current vaping habit could have increased my visual attention, my working memory, and my prospective memory (the ability to remember and implement a prior intention) by 15%. "In short, the drug seems to work by helping users shut out irrelevant stimuli so that important information can come to the fore", the article says. According to Casaa (with references to science) nicotine also relieves depression, reduces anxiety and protects against weight gain. I think we're all prone to being a little anxious at times, and stressed out, and nicotine helps us deal with that. If you've ever been a smoker I'm pretty sure you'll agree that the cravings are worst when you're a bit stressed. Could it be that the reason e-cigarettes work so well is that you're only trying to get rid of one thing at the time, the chemical addiction to cigarettes (which according to Killeen is very real), while it lets you keep the social aspect, the habit and the nicotine? Is nicotine really a supersheep in wolf's clothing?

Adding together the positive effects of nicotine and all this pretty convincing evidence that nicotine in fact isn't addictive on it's own, one might start to wonder: How and when did the whole world get convinced that it is? What or who made nicotine the scapegoat? And why? And finally, looking at the upsides of it's use, if you can administer it in a safe way (like vaping), is there any reason left to stop using it?

BenJohnson Stingray


  1. Nicotine enhances memory, learning and intelligence, says Danish professor. Unfortunately in Danish:

  2. Another post with great info about nicotine benefits up at Ashtray:

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  4. What or who made nicotine the scapegoat?
    A combination of statistics and bad logic of trigger mistaken for a direct cause-effect relation... and you get the Original Cause of nearly all diseases. Add to this over-generalisations by taking science out of its context and into the human domain, add also good-bad evaluations where they have no place... and you get scapegoating, social ostracism arising from uninformed unfounded mere beliefs and opinions.

    And why? When things go off track (the degenerative drift in human health, and the spreading of ageing illnesses as medicine prolongs people without care for quality of life).. something or someone has to be found to blame. Smoking and smokers are an easy target because a lot of smokers start out with sensitive systems that make it difficult for them to deal "successfully" with the stressful complications of life in society, which often throws them also into poverty (compounded by the outrageous taxes put on cigarettes). They do not really have 'a voice' socially and are, business-wise a great captive market... even when they are ostracised (addiction does not give choice).

    Asking the intelligent questions used to be the role of 'fundamental' science (no longer exists):
    Why do so many get hooked on all sorts of things at puberty? (includes sugar)
    Why do so many have difficulty with stress? (so much that the dominant psycho-social view of 'maladapted' behaviour becomes ridiculous if over half the population falls into the category)
    Where does the human health degeneration arise from?

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