Nicotine - The Science


Nicotine (C10H14N2 ) is a widely used recreational stimulant most associated with smoking. Despite this, there is now a vast range of methods and products available for smokeless nicotine consumption. This article will explore the origin, effects, drawbacks, and potential benefits of nicotine, using a science-based approach, for those who continue to enjoy this chemical and want to learn more about it.

What is Nicotine? 

It is important to note that nicotine is a drug. Despite many conceptualising beer and cigarettes as just ‘beers and cigs’ whilst at the local pub, far from the likes of substances such as cocaine and ecstasy, nicotine and alcohol are both drugs. This is an easy misconception because of their legal status, availability, and social acceptance factors. However, these factors do not detract from the fact that they are both mind-altering substances, and therefore drugs. We will touch on the mind-altering properties of nicotine later in this article.  

Firstly, let us look at the origin of nicotine. Nicotine is a plant alkaloid naturally produced by several plants of the nightshade species, which belong to a family of plants with the Latin name Solanaceae, including potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, red peppers, and most notably tobacco. Compared to the ‘high’ that nicotine users experience, in plants, the role of nicotine is to act as a natural insect repellent. Nicotine derived from the tobacco plant is called Nicotiana tabacum with high concentration levels of 8 – 14% and is the type of nicotine found in tobacco-containing products such as cigarettes, cigars, snuff, dip, chew, and snus.

To answer the question of what type of nicotine is in non-tobacco nicotine pouches, the type of nicotine is synthetic. Nicotine can be synthetically derived and is also known as freebase nicotine. Synthetic nicotine is extracted from the tobacco plant using a chemical distillation process, producing freebase nicotine with purity levels of up to 99.9%. Freebase nicotine has the same molecular structure and properties as Nicotiana tabacum but without impurities. In nicotine pouches, synthetic nicotine is combined with several other ingredients to produce the final product. You can find more information on the ingredients in nicotine pouches in our previous article ‘what is in a nicotine pouch?’ here.

What are the Effects of Nicotine? 

Nicotine is a psychoactive drug that is in the stimulant class. Nicotine stimulates the central nervous system (CNS) of the user, which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord and controls most of the functions of the body and mind.

The immediate mind-altering effects of nicotine are that of stimulation, including temporary feelings of pleasure, alertness, increased ability to concentrate, and contrary to the name of its drug class, feelings of relaxation. These effects occur due to the release of several neurotransmitters including, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and most importantly dopamine. Dopamine is the hormone for reward and when it is released, is responsible for the feelings of pleasure associated with nicotine use, but also plays a crucial role in reinforcing nicotine, making it addictive.

Other effects of nicotine, regarded as side effects, include the following: Increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased intestinal activity (why your nicotine use may lead you to need the toilet), increased saliva and phlegm production, sweating, nausea, and decreased appetite. These side effects become greater as the dosage increases and may outweigh the desirable effects of nicotine, so it is important to consider what strength (mg/g or mg/pouch) pouch that you use, and how frequently you use them. The effects of nicotine, both desirable and undesirable, are dependent on the user’s tolerance, body weight, other drug interactions and genetics.  

The half-life of nicotine is roughly two hours, which is the time it takes for half of the nicotine dose to be removed from the body. Despite this, the effects of nicotine are relatively short-lived. Consumption via inhalation (vaping / smoking) results in the effects of nicotine being felt very fast but subsiding quickly. Buccal consumption, however (between the gum and cheek), as utilised by nicotine pouch users, results in a slower uptake of nicotine, but increased longevity of the felt effects and greater total nicotine uptake.  

See for yourself in the graph below:


Why is Nicotine Addictive?

It is well documented that nicotine is addictive, and users of it will be familiar with the ‘nicotine is a highly addictive substance’ warning label. As mentioned previously, dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters released because of consuming nicotine that is responsible for the pleasurable effects, but also the addictive nature of it.

Psychologically speaking, the nicotine addiction mechanism is regulated by operant conditioning, a phenomenon discovered in the late 1940s. Operant conditioning refers to the determination of the behaviour performed by an individual based on consequences. To put this simply, one is more likely to repeat a behaviour if the outcome is positive, this is termed positive reinforcement, and in nicotine addiction, this would be the pleasurable effects felt after smoking or using a nicotine pouch. The probability of a behaviour being increased can also result from negative reinforcement, which is also a positive outcome, but in the form of the removal of an undesirable effect, strengthening reinforcement of the behaviour. In nicotine addiction, negative reinforcement would be the removal of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms following consumption of nicotine.

So, nicotine addiction occurs by the following sequence of events. Firstly, the initiation period, whereby an individual begins to use nicotine products and feels the pleasurable and desirable effects because of the release of dopamine, causing positive reinforcement of this behaviour, making it more likely to be repeated. Over time, the user repeats this behaviour to keep feeling the pleasurable effects of nicotine by dopamine release but also experiences withdrawal symptoms from the subsequent subsiding of effects. This is where negative reinforcement comes into play, to reinforce the nicotine addiction mechanism by using nicotine to avoid these undesirable withdrawal symptoms. This process becomes a cycle and therefore keeps the user addicted.

Withdrawal symptoms from nicotine include irritability, intense nicotine cravings, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, lack of concentration, increased appetite, nausea, depression, and anxiety.

Is Nicotine Dangerous? 

People smoke for the nicotine, but die from the tar” – Professor Michael Russell

Smoking is without question a very dangerous habit and is the leading cause of preventable cancers. Prof Russell’s quote suggests that nicotine is not the chemical to blame for deaths by smoking, but rather the other chemicals in cigarettes, like tar. So, with this said, it is important to understand if nicotine by itself comes with any risks.  

Firstly, nicotine can kill you. Nicotine is poisonous in large enough quantities, with some research stating that 30 to 60 milligrams could be enough to be a lethal dose. However, adult deaths by nicotine overdose are rare and many products contain the amount of nicotine stated to be lethal but do not result in death after consumption. Nicotine overdose is seen more often in young people, mostly those who mistake E-liquid or other smoking cessation products as toys or candy. The research on nicotine poisoning should not be enough to put you off using nicotine if you already do so, because lots of things can be toxic in high enough dosages, including caffeine, alcohol, and paracetamol – the key here is mindful use, moderation and reading the label.

Exercising the use of common sense and moderation greatly reduces the risk of nicotine poisoning to almost none. However, there are a few noteworthy drawbacks to nicotine use. Nicotine has been stated to not cause cancer or be excessively harmful on its own, but it is still a powerful drug that affects multiple organs and systems in the body.

One of the most notable points of concern is the effect that nicotine has on the heart. Nicotine stimulates the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, and as a result, changes the rhythm and rate of the heart, increases blood pressure, constricts the coronary artery making disease of it more likely, and increases the risk of stroke.

Nicotine also affects the circulation of blood in the body by enlargement of the aorta, plaque formation on the artery wall, and increased tendency of clotting.

The brain can be affected by nicotine too. Nicotine can cause bad dreams or nightmares and affect sleep quality, reduce the flow of blood to the brain, and cause light-headedness or dizziness.

The gastrointestinal system can be impacted by nicotine use causing nausea and sickness, heartburn, indigestion, peptic ulcers, and an upset stomach.

It is important to remember that whilst nicotine does not cause cancer and if used correctly, is relatively safe, you should still always choose nicotine pouch products of a sensible strength for you and avoid any unregulated ‘super-strength' products. 20 -25mg per pouch seems to be a good upper limit.

Are There any Potential Benefits to Nicotine Use?

“We need to de-demonize nicotine” – Ann McNeil (Professor of Tobacco Addiction)

There is surprisingly growing evidence of some potential benefits of nicotine use. It is not advised that those who are not existing users of nicotine products start using nicotine. However, there is some exciting new information for those who continue to enjoy nicotine.

Nicotine, like caffeine, is a stimulant. Giving up cigarettes as a form of nicotine delivery and switching to using products such as nicotine gum, patches or pouches, removes 90% of the health risks of the habit. Research has shown this switch to render nicotine as harmless as a cup of coffee.

The stimulant properties of nicotine can have a positive effect, especially regarding performance enhancement. Nicotine increases alertness, concentration, memory ability, and sensory information processing speed. These benefits observed from nicotine use have made the substance recognised as a nootropic – a drug used to enhance memory or cognitive function.

Further, nicotine is implicated in the prevention of various neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Tourette’s disease. Nicotine has also been identified to protect against ulcerative colitis and sleep apnea and aid those with ADHD. Additionally, nicotine is a useful appetite suppression tool and can help burn fat. These positive effects serve as a justification for further nicotine benefit research.

Further Reading

Check out the links below if you would like to learn more about the science of nicotine:

What is nicotine?

What are the Effects?

Nicotine addiction

Is it Dangerous?

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