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Understanding Nicotine

Medical News Today, Article


[Source: ECBlend reprint permission granted by ©Medical News Today, Article  By Adam Felman  Reviewed by MNT medical review team, Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA] (Some images by ECBlend)

Nicotine is a chemical that contains nitrogen, which is made by several types of plants, including the tobacco plant. It is also produced synthetically. Nicotiana tabacum, the type of nicotine found in tobacco plants, comes from the nightshade family. Red peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes are examples of the nightshade family.

While not cancer-causing or excessively harmful on its own, nicotine is heavily addictive and exposes people to the extremely harmful effects of tobacco dependency.

Smoking is the most common preventable cause of death in the United States.

Fast facts on nicotine

Here are some key points about nicotine.

  • Chewing or snorting tobacco products usually releases more nicotine into the body than smoking.
  • Nicotine is at least as difficult to give up as heroin.
  • The side effects of nicotine can affect the heart, hormones, and gastrointestinal system.
  • Some studies suggest that nicotine may improve memory and concentration.
  • There are more than one billion tobacco smokers worldwide.


Nicotiana tabacum, the type of nicotine found in tobacco plants, comes from the nightshade family

The tobacco plant is indigenous to the Americas and has been used as a medicine and stimulant for at least 2,000 years.

It is not known how tobacco first reached Europe. However, Christopher Columbus is often thought to have discovered tobacco while exploring the Americas for the first time.

The smoking of pipes and cigars spread quickly throughout the 1600s. The plant divided opinion when it was introduced to Europe. Some saw tobacco as medicinal, while others saw it as toxic and habit-forming.

The tobacco industry grew throughout the 1700s, and exploded in 1880 when a machine was first patented to mass-produce paper cigarettes. From then on, cigarettes became much easier to produce, and this saw in the dawn of the major tobacco corporations.

Tobacco was first used as an insecticide in 1763.

In 1828, Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt, a doctor, and Karl Ludwig Reinmann, a chemist, both from Germany, first isolated nicotine from the tobacco plant and identified it as a poison.

By the end of the 19th century, lawmakers had begun to realize the harmful effects of nicotine. Laws were passed banning stores from selling nicotine to minors in 26 states by the year 1890.

It was not until 1964 that the Surgeon General of the U.S. published a study linking smoking with heart disease and lung cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took until 1994 to officially recognize nicotine as a drug that produced dependency.

Even after this landmark recognition, the FDA was not granted control over nicotine regulations by the Supreme Court until June 22nd, 2009. On this day, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA the power to regulate the production and advertisement of tobacco products.


Nicotine has a range of effects on the body.

The 'nicotine effect'

Nicotine is both a sedative and a stimulant.

When a body is exposed to nicotine, the individual experiences a "kick." This is partly caused by nicotine stimulating the adrenal glands, which results in the release of adrenaline.

This surge of adrenaline stimulates the body. There is an immediate release of glucose, as well as an increase in heart rate, breathing activity, and blood pressure.

Nicotine also makes the pancreas produce less insulin, causing a slight increase in blood sugar or glucose.

Indirectly, nicotine causes the release of dopamine in the pleasure and motivation areas of the brain. A similar effect occurs when people take heroin or cocaine. The drug user experiences a pleasurable sensation.

As users become more tolerant to nicotine, they require higher doses to enjoy the same effects.

Dopamine is a brain chemical that affects emotions, movements, and sensations of pleasure and pain. If your brain dopamine levels rise, the feeling of contentment is higher.

Depending on the dose of nicotine taken and the individual's nervous system arousal, nicotine can also act as a sedative.

Pharmacologic effects

When humans, mammals, and most other types of animals are exposed to nicotine, it increases their heart rate, heart muscle oxygen consumption rate, and heart stroke volume. These are known as pharmacologic effects.

Psychodynamic effects

Consuming nicotine is also linked to raised alertness, euphoria, and a sensation of being relaxed.

Concentration and memory

Studies have shown that nicotine appears to improve memory and concentration. It is thought that this is due to an increase in acetylcholine and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine also increases the sensation of wakefulness, or arousal.

Reduced anxiety

Nicotine results in increased levels of beta-endorphin, which reduces anxiety.

How the body processes nicotine

After inhaling tobacco smoke, nicotine rapidly enters the bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and reaches the brain within 8 to 20 seconds. Within approximately 2 hours after entering the body, half of the nicotine has gone.

How much nicotine may enter a smoker's body depends on:

  • the type of tobacco being used
  • whether or not the smoker inhales the smoke
  • whether a filter is used, and what type of filter it is

Tobacco products that are chewed, placed inside the mouth, or snorted tend to release considerably larger amounts of nicotine into the body than smoking.

Nicotine is metabolized / broken down by the liver.

Nicotine tolerance

Tolerance increases with the amount of nicotine consumed and people require higher doses to enjoy the same initial effects. As most of the nicotine in the body leaves the body during sleep, tolerance may have virtually disappeared first thing in the morning.

Nicotine has less of an effect as the day progresses because of the buildup of tolerance.


Nicotine is one of the most difficult substances to quit once addicted.

Nicotine is highly addictive.

People who regularly consume nicotine and then suddenly stop experience withdrawal symptoms, which may include:

  • cravings
  • a sense of emptiness
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • moodiness
  • irritability
  • difficulty focusing or paying attention

The American Heart Association says that nicotine consumed from smoking tobacco is one of the hardest substances to quit. It is considered to be at least as hard as quitting heroin.

A 2013 study showed that reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes also brings down their level of addictiveness.

A study carried out at the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nicotine consumption makes cocaine more addictive.

Side effects

Nicotine causes a wide range of side effects in most organs and systems.

The circulation of the blood can be affected in the following ways:

  • an increased clotting tendency, leading to a risk of harmful blood clots
  • atherosclerosis, in which plaque forms on the artery wall
  • enlargement of the aorta

Side effects in the brain include:

  • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • irregular and disturbed sleep
  • bad dreams and nightmares
  • possible blood restriction

In the gastrointestinal system, nicotine can have the following effects:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • dry mouth, or xerostomia
  • indigestion
  • peptic ulcers
  • diarrhea
  • heartburn

The heart can experience the following after taking in nicotine:

  • changes in heart rate and rhythm
  • an increase in blood pressure
  • constrictions and diseases of the coronary artery
  • an increased risk of stroke

If a woman smokes while pregnant, the following risks are likely in the development of the child:

  • obesity
  • high blood pressure
  • type 2 diabetes
  • respiratory difficulties
  • infertility
  • problems with brain development
  • behavioral issues

Other effects include:

  • spasms in the lungs
  • pneumonia
  • tremors and pain in the muscles
  • increase levels of insulin and insulin resistance, contributing to the risk of diabetes
  • joint pain


Humans get their nicotine "fix" primarily through smoking tobacco, but can also obtain it by snorting snuff, chewing tobacco, or taking nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs), such as nicotine gum, lozenges, patches, and inhalators.  
Smoking leads to over 480,000 deaths in the country per year, and over 16 million people in the U.S. are currently living with a disease caused by smoking

By far, the most popular way of consuming nicotine is by smoking cigarettes. Worldwide, over one billion people are cigarette smokers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Approximately 16.7 percent of adult males and 13.6 percent of adult females in the U.S. are smokers. 

More people die as a result of smoking than all deaths due to HIV, vehicle accidents, murder, suicide, alcohol and substance abuse combined.

Are e-cigarettes and vaporizers safe?

In recent years, liquid nicotine has been touted as a less risky replacement for smoking cigarettes. This can be delivered to the system in an electronic cigarette or vaporizer. These are known as electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).

These battery-operated 'e-cigs' and 'vapes' atomize the liquid nicotine by applying heat but without the harmful, oxidative effects of burning. Liquids are available in a range of strengths and flavors.

Current evidence suggests that using liquid nicotine is a safer alternative to inhaling tobacco smoke, as nicotine in itself is not classified as carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

It may also help people that are trying to quit smoking mimic some of the addictive behaviors of cigarette use, such as raising the hand to the mouth or seeing smoke inhaled, that other types of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) cannot imitate. Liquid nicotine can help replicate these behaviors without the harmful effects of tobacco use.

Any form of nicotine is highly addictive, so e-cigarettes and vaporizers remain unsuitable for young people and those who do not already smoke. Liquid nicotine can act as a gateway to cigarettes for those not already regularly taking in nicotine.

The use of e-cigarettes increased from 1.5 percent to 16 percent among high-school students, and from 0.6 percent to 5.3 percent in middle-school students between 2011 and 2015, with 81 percent of young e-cigarette users putting their use of the products down to the wide availability of flavors.

There are also other chemicals present in e-cigarette and vaporizer liquid that could be harmful, and these chemicals will be different in various brands, products, devices, and uses. Some products that are available online may also contain dangerous concentrations of nicotine.

While nicotine does not itself cause cancer, some of the other substances in liquid nicotine may well contribute to it. For example, a flavoring called diacetyl, used in some e-liquids, is also associated with severe respiratory problems seen in workers at a factory that produces microwaveable popcorn, known as "popcorn lung."

Warning: This Product Contains Nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.

These products have been regulated by the FDA since 2016 and, as of 2018, must bear the nicotine addictiveness warning on packaging and marketing materials. However, as a relatively new technology, the full effects of liquid nicotine are not known, and caution is advised.