Effects of Nicotine

Nicotine is the harmful, addictive substance found in all tobacco products. When you smoke a cigarette, chew tobacco, or otherwise ingest nicotine, the effects are immediate:
  • Nicotine travels through the body in the bloodstream and heads straight for the brain, arriving in 7 to 15 seconds.
  • In the brain, nicotine boosts the “reward center,” releasing chemicals that cause a pleasant, happy feeling.
  • Adrenaline is then released, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and making breathing rapid and shallow. As nicotine use continues, these effects can damage your heart, arteries, and lungs, increasing the risk for heart attack, stroke, and chronic lung disease.

How is nicotine addictive?

Over time, nicotine affects the neurotransmitters in the brain, changing the way certain brain cells work. When one stops using nicotine, the changes remain for a while until the brain can revert back to its normal state. These changes are what cause the withdrawal symptoms characteristic of addiction. In fact, nicotine chemically changes the brain in a similar way to heroin and cocaine, so it’s no wonder so many tobacco users have a hard time quitting!

Once the body is free of nicotine, it no longer works in the same way it did when it had a regular supply of nicotine. It can take as long as 4 to 6 weeks for the brain to readjust to life without nicotine as it “re-learns” how to make the chemicals to stimulate the pleasure centers on its own. It is during this transition period that former nicotine users may crave nicotine or feel irritable, anxious, or depressed. But don’t worry. After some time as the brain heals, these feelings and cravings will go away. If you can fight through cravings, get support, think about medications to help, and use your coping strategies, you will succeed.

How does nicotine affect your body?

There are so many dangers associated with using tobacco products that sometimes the harmful effects of nicotine alone get lost in the shuffle. Nicotine adversely affects EVERY major system in the human body. As it builds up from regular use, it can lead to weakened immune function, fatigue, decreased healing time, and long-term diseases including cancer. In fact, nicotine prevents the body from properly disposing of damaged cells, thereby allowing cancer cells to develop.

Whether nicotine comes from smoke, chew, or use of newer e-cigarettes or dissolvable tobacco, nicotine affects each user in the same ways. Let’s break down the body and see how nicotine impacts individual parts:
  • Brain: Nicotine disrupts normal neurotransmitter activity, causing chemical changes and addiction. Other neurological symptoms caused by nicotine include light-headedness, sleep disturbance, dizziness, and tremors.
  • Heart and Arteries: Nicotine increases heart rate and raises blood pressure when it stimulates the release of adrenaline. Short term, this means your body is less efficient when you exercise. It has to work harder getting the blood and oxygen to cells that need it, preventing the body from reaching its maximum potential. Long term, the stress on the heart and arteries can lead to increased risk of heart attack and can even lead to a stroke and/or aneurysm.
  • Eyes: Nicotine reduces the ability to see at night by stopping the production of pigments in the eyes specially designed for low-light vision. Adrenaline released by nicotine reduces peripheral vision, and in the end, nicotine accelerates the degeneration of the eyes.
  • Metabolism: Nicotine increases calories burned but decreases endurance by wasting energy in the effort. So, while nicotine users may have the energy to sprint down the block, they won't have the maximum lung or heart capacity to get their best score on a PT running test or maybe even to finish the all-night trek with their unit.
  • Reproductive System: Nicotine prohibits proper blood circulation and is a leading cause of erectile dysfunction (impotence) for men under 40. Nicotine also increases the risk of infertility and miscarriage. And if babies exposed to nicotine in utero do make it to birth, they tend to have low birth weights, be born prematurely, and have increased risk for lung problems.
  • Bones: When used over time, nicotine alters cellular structures and has been found to increase risk for fractures while contributing long-term to the development of weakened bones (osteoporosis).
Smokers are at an additional risk because nicotine is present in their lungs. Nicotine causes rapid and shallow respiration, leading to quicker fatigue during exercise or combat. Over time, nicotine permanently damages the cells in the lungs by changing their structure. This leads to increased risk for lung disease, lung cancer, emphysema, pneumonia, and bronchitis!