Understanding Nicotine Addiction


Understanding Nicotine Addiction

Understanding Nicotine Addiction
By Oliver Norman, Content Marketing Manager at EDGE Vaping


When we think of addiction our minds often first wander to thoughts of hard drugs or alcohol, after all, the symptoms of such addictions are often very visible. They are commonly used as case-studies to warn people of the dangers of indulging in dangerous and addictive substances.

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance that can often go unnoticed. Until we see a person regularly smoking, it would be difficult to guess they were a nicotine addict if they passed you in the street. The dangers of smoking to our health are more widely known now, but most of that harm is linked to the additional 7,000 plus toxins found within cigarette smoke. Nicotine, however, is the substance that keeps people coming back for more, with even one cigarette being enough to foster an addiction.

This guide from EDGE Vaping explores why nicotine is so addictive, and how it can affect our bodies. If you are considering quitting smoking or reducing your nicotine intake, it can be beneficial to understand its effects.
How Addictive is Nicotine?
Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known to man, being scientifically accepted as harder to overcome than heroin in many cases.

As a stimulant, nicotine is a part of the family of drugs considered to be among the most habit-forming. Delivering short-term benefits to a person’s mood and sense of wellbeing, while simultaneously creating conditions to the contrary; a person may smoke to relieve stress, without realising the withdrawal effects of nicotine are actually driving them to smoke in the first place.

There have been considerable studies carried out investigating the addictive nature of
nicotine, with scientists constantly amazed by how powerful it can be. One researcher, Dr Daniel McGehee, stated that “it would be difficult to design a better drug than nicotine to promote addiction”.
Why is Nicotine Addictive?

A major part of nicotine’s addictiveness lies in its double action upon the brain, according to research at the University of Chicago funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA). Nicotine directly stimulates the feelings of pleasure in the brain, while indirectly preventing those feelings from lasting very long or coming on very strong.

In this way, nicotine toys with your brain’s reward system, causing you to crave the satisfaction of a cigarette while chemically ensuring the joy will be short-lived, leading you to consume more and more in pursuit of a dwindling pleasure.

Once it reaches your brain, nicotine binds to special neurons and causes them to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is not only responsible for feelings of pleasure, but also drives our desire to repeat behaviours that led to that pleasure. For example, drinking water when thirsty is a universal example of this action-reward relationship. When we drink to quench our thirst, our brains are flooded with dopamine that gives us satisfaction and reinforces that this was the correct response to our situation, making us want to do it again if the same circumstances arise.

Nicotine takes this relationship to the next level, which is why it is so powerfully addictive. NIDA discovered that dopamine levels triggered by nicotine remain high even after the direct stimulus ends. This means that the desire to repeat behaviour like smoking is even stronger than natural causes like drinking water.

This occurs because of the way nicotine interacts with two other neurotransmitters in your brain: glutamate and GABA. Glutamate speeds up the activity of your brain’s neurons, whereas GABA slows them down.

Researchers discovered that nicotine specifically causes glutamate to massively speed up the release of dopamine, while at the same time preventing GABA from slowing it down naturally. This results in a dopamine hit that can last over an hour, and results in an immensely powerful desire to repeat the behaviour that led to such a boost – an addiction.

Summarising the findings, Dr McGehee said: “A brief application of nicotine can induce a lasting effect on excitatory [glutamate] signals to the brain’s reward system.

“This suggests that, in humans, a relatively short nicotine exposure, even for someone who has never smoked before, can cause long-lasting changes in excitatory neurotransmission.

“The combination of effects-increasing dopamine release and decreasing the inhibitory [GABA] response results in an amplification of the rewarding properties of nicotine, it would be difficult to design a better drug to promote addiction.”
Potential Damage and Nicotine Withdrawal
Nicotine has a profound effect on the brain and body, with prolonged exposure at different points in our development having varied consequences. The power of the dependence caused by nicotine addiction alone means that those attempting to leave it behind can expect to face a number of different withdrawal symptoms both physical and mental.

Because nicotine acts on so many parts of the body, it can cause widespread damage if consumed regularly and in large amounts. National Institutes of Health (NIH) research has found prolonged exposure can damage the heart, kidneys, liver and beyond. Despite the current findings, research is still ongoing to establish the true risks associated with nicotine.

Studies have shown that nicotine use increases the heart rate from 10-15 beats per minute, and slightly elevates blood pressure. It has also been shown to have diuretic effects on the body, meaning you are more likely to be dehydrated while consuming it.

Nicotine addiction has a prolific impact on a person’s mental health. The most obvious symptoms of withdrawal include irritability and increased anxiety when cravings reach their peak. This can have negative effects upon not only your wellbeing and ability to cope with daily life, but also your relationships with those around you.

The majority of smokers pick up the habit during adolescence, with 70% reporting to have smoked a cigarette at least once according to the NIH. During this time, the prefrontal cortex is still developing. This is the area of the brain responsible for executive functions and attention performance, and it is particularly susceptible to damage from nicotine consumption. The risk of developing psychiatric disorders and mental health issues later in life has been observed to greatly increase if the person was a smoker in their adolescence.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms


Within a day or so of your last cigarette, your appetite will shoot up for a while. Nicotine binds to receptors in the brain that release dopamine and serotonin. These two chemicals reduce hunger, so when they’re out of your system you’ll want to eat more. A lot of people also find that they eat to fill the time they used to spend smoking. Most people gain about five to 10 pounds as they try to quit smoking.


Nicotine cravings are the symptom you will deal with the longest, and they could start just
30 minutes after your last cigarette. An average craving will last only about 15 to 20 minutes, but they are persistent.

Headaches and dizziness

These are usually mild and are often the first withdrawal symptom to show up and taper off.


Nicotine is a stimulant, so you’ll probably feel tired without it. You may also be restless and
might have insomnia.


For the first month of abstaining from nicotine, constipation can be another unpleasant side effect.
Mental Withdrawal Symptoms


The nicotine delivered when smoking is widely perceived to relieve stress. When quitting, this can cause your anxiety to skyrocket as you are defying your brains desire to repeat the behaviour that gave you such a powerful chemical reward.


For the same reasons as anxiety above, suddenly removing nicotine from your life can lead to feelings of depression. While these are generally gone within a month, those with a history of medical anxiety and depression may require extra support.


As a result of the physical symptoms of withdrawal, it is common for a person to have a very short fuse. This can cause you to become angry at the slightest thing; however, this is normal and should pass with time.

Mental Fog

As the nicotine slowly leaves your body, many people have expressed a difficulty concentrating and remaining focussed on everyday tasks.

Timeline of Nicotine Addiction

30 minutes to 4 hours: The initial effects from the nicotine will wear off and you’ll start to crave another cigarette.

10 hours: You will be very restless, physically craving a cigarette, and wondering how to fill the time. You may feel sad and hopeless.

24 hours: Irritability will kick in and your appetite will increase.

Two days: You’ll likely have headaches as the nicotine leaves your system.

Three days: The nicotine should be gone from your system at this point. Your cravings should taper off but anxiety may start to rise.

One week: Pat yourself on the back, you’ve made it through the worst. Avoiding triggers is vital to avoid relapse.

Two to four weeks: You still won’t have much energy, but any mental fog should be clearing, and your appetite will settle down. Your cough, depression, and anxiety should also improve.

Five weeks on: With most physical symptoms behind you, the key is now remaining strong mentally.



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