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Today is one of my favorite comedian’s birthdays. The English actor and comedian John Cleese was born this day in 1939. He was one of the founding members of Monty Python. However, you can see him in a different setting with Rowan Atkinson here.
For the newsletter today we talk about a subject that is very close to me. We discuss nicotine addiction. What is nicotine, why is it so addictive and what are some proposed solutions for overcoming nicotine addiction. Also, some more news about human brains and ants (that’s one story), new types of concrete, and more.
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Why is nicotine so addicting?
Nicotine is the main drug in cigarettes that causes dependence and makes the smoker addicted. According to the CDC, nicotine is as addictive as heroin and cocaine (coincidentally it’s the only one that is taxed though!). According to the WHO, there are 1.27 tobacco users worldwide and there are nearly 5.4 million deaths a year that are attributed to tobacco. And even though these statistics are not new or hidden people still find it hard to stop smoking. And as a person that had a period in his life that turned me to cigarettes, I can sympathize with the people that do. Either as a social habit or a de-stressing outlet cigarettes work! But the payment is more than just the money spent to buy them but because the secondary effects are more long-term it’s hard to not think of them as a “future me” problem.
I’d like to spend some time today to discuss what is nicotine, how does it affect our body and why is it so hard to quit smoking? Also if you need help to quit smoking reach out to friends (or even me if you want) and ask for help. And if you know someone that struggles with it lend an ear and see how you can help.
So, first things first, what is nicotine? Nicotine in its purest form is a clear organic compound that turns brown when it’s exposed to air. It can naturally be absorbed by the human body from the lungs, skin, or guts. Nicotine is then metabolized by your liver which as we discussed in previous editions of the newsletter breaks it down and decides what components can be used by your body and which ones are waste.
As anyone that has smoked can tell you, immediately after you smoke you feel nauseous, dizzy, have a headache, and an upset stomach, however, over time you build a tolerance and these effects become unnoticeable. So after that how does nicotine become addicting?
In your body, you have some neuroreceptors that are called nicotinic acetylcholine receptors which mainly respond to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. However, nicotine can also create a response from these neuroreceptors, and in turn, it will stimulate dopamine transmission that will stimulate the reward center of your brain. And that’s how it starts, you chemically and really feel ‘happier’ after your first cigarettes. Sadly, with repeated exposure to nicotine and dopamine, the neurons that regulate dopamine get desensitized, and thus in order to get the same effect you need more dopamine, which means more nicotine which reinforces your addiction. And while this is one mechanism of how addiction works, we now know that there is also a major genetic component to addiction as according to the American Psychological Association at least half of a person’s drug susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction is hereditary.
Addiction, however, is only the start of the problems with smoking as it can also affect your metabolism, cause cancer, affect your respiratory systems and so so much more (which we can cover in the future). And quitting can be quite hard as nicotine withdrawal can have very serious effects such as anxiety, depression, headaches, weight gain, etc. With all these factors in mind, there needs to be a change in the way society treats smoking as an “optional activity”. Truth is, most smokers continue to smoke because they have developed a dependency upon nicotine and they need to be treated with respect, patience, and empathy in order for them to overcome that dependency.
Some years ago there was a suggestion for smokers that want to lessen their smoking habit they could switch to vaping e-cigarettes as a transition. Sadly though a study from the University of California San Diego and the Moores Cancer Center reported that e-cigarettes didn’t help smokers stay off cigarettes. They reported that people that switched to e-cigarettes increased their risk of relapsing back to smoking over the next year by 8.5% compared to those that quit using tobacco products. You can read more about the study and what are the methods that have helped most people quit smoking in the press release from the UC of San Diego here.
How can ants explain why the human brain shrunk?
And while you might think that this is a personal attack I assure you it’s not. All of our brains shrunk some time ago. A REALLY long time ago. like 3000 years ago. But scientists find it hard to explain why when they’re looking at human fossils? When all else fails, scientists turn to nature and try to find parallels in systems that they can study and try to draw conclusions. So they turned to ants that have some similar aspects when it comes to their social life as humans. Allocation of tasks, decision-making in groups, and the production of food to name a few. Their study amongst different types of ants revealed that brains adapt and they can be more effective in a social group where knowledge is shared. Read more about the results and the methods of the study in the article from Universal-Sci here.