Your Smoking Brain on Nicotine

Ever wonder what compels you to smoke, knowing full well the health risks? Most likely the answer is nicotine, the addictive substance in cigarettes, and a cigarette is the perfect delivery system for nicotine. It takes only ten seconds from inhalation of smoke for nicotine to reach your brain, quicker than an IV drug injection! It's this speed of nicotine to the brain that makes cigarette smoking so easily and heavily addictive. Other additives in cigarettes, such as ammonia and theobromine, also play a part in maximizing this rapid delivery (and are added by tobacco companies for this reason).

Once nicotine reaches your brain, it changes the way your brain cells communicate to each other. Nicotine mimics the neurotransmitter acetylcholine by attaching to special receptors on your brain cells, stimulating the release of chemicals that make you feel good. Dopamine, a main neurotransmitter of the reward pathway in the brain, is one of the chemicals released. Dopamine helps regulate moods and gives you a feeling of pleasure and calm. It's part of what encourages you to keep going back for more tobacco smoke.

When you smoke and expose your brain to nicotine, it increases the number of nicotine receptors, which then require more nicotine for the brain to feel normal. This alteration in brain structure is what makes quitting smoking so difficult. The level of dopamine drops during the time in between smoking cigarettes. You may feel irritable, fidgety, and stressed when that happens, and craving a cigarette to make the withdrawal symptoms subside, so you can feel good again.

As long as you keep on smoking, this cycle of craving, smoking, relaxing, craving will continue. Over time, you build up a tolerance to nicotine and need to smoke more cigarettes to get the same feel good effect. This is why if you switch to a 'low' or 'light' cigarette you will inhale more deeply or smoke more of the cigarette to compensate for the lower dose of nicotine. 

Nicotine can have both a stimulating and relaxing effect on your brain. Ever been tired and taken a couple short puffs on a cigarette to perk up...or taken in a few longer drags to help feel relaxed when feeling stressed or tense? That's just another way nicotine gets you hooked in.

The changes nicotine causes in the brain makes smoking highly addictive and difficult to stop. Not only do you deal with the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, such as irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, and strong cravings to smoke, but you also have to contend with the behavioral and environmental triggers that crop up, like having a glass of wine, driving the car, or getting into a heated argument -- all times your brain is used to getting a jolt of nicotine and pleasure. Once you do quit smoking you need to stick with the acronym N.O.P.E -Not One Puff Ever, because even a single cigarette can risk triggering the same cravings to smoke you had before quitting. 

As overwhelming as this may sound, quitting smoking is an achievable goal that can make all the difference in leading a healthier life. Consider using a quit-medication if the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms get in the way of a successful quit. The encouraging news is that, though it may take up to six weeks, quitting for good enables the nicotine receptors in your brain to return to normal. 

Keep Going and KTQ!