Nicotine is simply a naturally occurring chemical found in certain plants. Of course, there are synthetic versions now, but this is where it was found and isolated. Nicotine is known widely as the ingredient in tobacco that causes the physiological addiction to tobacco products like cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.
It was introduced to Europeans when they first arrived in the Americas to explore and settle. Native tribes across both North and South America used tobacco, and Europeans quickly became hooked on it. The exact history of tobacco use among natives is unknown, but it was documented that they often used it in religious ceremonies, both on it’s own and in conjunction with other types of ritual concoctions like hallucinogens.
Many reports also show that tobacco, and thus nicotine, was widely used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. Tobacco plants were mixed into poultices to place on the skin to relieve arthritis, smoked to cure colds, and placed in the mouth along the gums to help with tooth pain. Europeans picked up the idea that tobacco had healing properties, believing it to be a miraculous plant that could cure headaches, soothe nerves, and even prevent the bubonic plague.
Tobacco became a huge part of the economy in the New World. It became so valuable that colonists in Maryland and Virginia used it as legal currency for a while. With the need to produce tobacco came the need for labor - first by using indentured servants, and gradually transferring over to rest on slave labor from the African slave trade.
It wasn’t until 1828 that nicotine was extracted from tobacco and identified. Two Germans were the ones to discover nicotine: a doctor, Wilhelm Posselt, and a chemist, Ludwig Reinmann. Not only did they manage to isolate it, they also deemed it to be poison. Scientists in later years mapped out the chemical in more detail, and finally found a way to synthesize it. This was achieved in 1904 by A. Pictet and P. Crepieux. Nicotine has been studied intensively throughout the years, and modern scientists have discovered even more about this historically important and widely studied chemical.
Nicotine and the Human Body
But how does this chemical work in the human body? It is absorbed into the bloodstream through popular delivery methods like smoking, chewing and ‘dipping’. When smoking tobacco, the nicotine easily enters the bloodstream through the lungs, and is acting on the brain within 8-20 seconds of an inhalation. Although smoking cigarettes is often seen as the most common way to get a nicotine fix, ingesting tobacco orally or through the nasal passages by chewing or snorting it disperses more nicotine than through smoking.
Once nicotine hits the brain, it immediately begins to act as a stimulant. Adrenaline quickly courses through the brain, kick-starting a huge array of chemical and physical reactions. The epinephrine secreted by the adrenal glands after nicotine exposure is the same exact epinephrine that the body naturally produces during times of fear, excitement, and stress. It can provide a short lived but powerful boost within the brain. Heart rate and blood pressure go up with this adrenaline rush, along with the output of glucose and higher respiratory rates.
Nicotine also has an extremely powerful effect on dopamine output in the brain. Dopamine has been called the ‘pleasure molecule’, and it speaks to humans on a deeply primitive level. Feelings of pleasure and motivation are followed by dopamine release in the brain, and although the brains truly enjoy the pleasure in a dopamine release, the addiction lies in the motivation aspect of it.
Once the dopamine wears off, the body wants to regain the pleasurable feeling. Thus, addiction of all types are born. Nicotine leaves the body very quickly, and once it does, that pleasure and reward system practically begs to be stimulated again. Over time, nicotine builds up in the system, and the nicotine addict has to increase the intake in order to satisfy the dopamine demands. Just like with drugs of abuse like heroin or cocaine, nicotine can easily ensnare a person into a vicious cycle of addiction. The dopamine receptors in the brain can actually begin to diminish, so that less dopamine is absorbed, causing the system to demand more and more.
The use of nicotine leads different people to feel different things. Despite the fact that nicotine is a stimulant, many people say that nicotine relaxes them, and can even have a sedative effect. Others may feel more aware or alert, and some have described it as a nearly euphoric feeling.
Although nicotine is not solely responsible for all of the negative health problems encountered in tobacco users, it remains one of the most powerful. It is the primary ingredient that feeds the hardcore addiction that so many people are trapped by. While scientists are still researching and collating data about nicotine and the human body, society continues to be the force that focuses and shapes popular opinion about the potent chemical.
Other Facts About Nicotine
- Nicotine is found in other plants, including potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and some peppers.
- Nicotine has been used as an insecticide
- Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade, is also related to the tobacco plant. It is an extremely poisonous plant that grows as a weed throughout the Americas.
- Researchers are currently studying possible health benefits of nicotine. Some fields of interest are in Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, Tourettes, and ADHD.
- Eating tobacco plants is toxic to most insects. However, the Hornworm Caterpillar can not only ingest tobacco, it ‘exhales’ nicotine through holes located along its sides as a deterrent to predators such as the Wolf Spider.