Ending tobacco use: Understanding how nicotine affects the brain
March 7, 2018
It's not too late to make a healthy change. The first quarter of a new year can be a productive and energetic time to recreate a new and more improved you. Set aside some time to envision what you want to accomplish and make a game plan to successfully achieve these goals.
One goal might be to make 2018 a healthier year. Simple things such as losing weight, eating right, quitting tobacco use, and implementing an exercise routine are all great goals to make. If your goal is to quit tobacco use, such as cigarettes, vaping, and/or chewing for this year, understanding how nicotine affects the brain is important.
The vicious cycle of tobacco use: Most tobacco users recognize that smoking, vaping or chewing is physically unhealthy. However, they experience that it has positive psychological functions related to stress, anxiety and depression. This keeps them using tobacco.
Nicotine is found in all tobacco products. When people use tobacco, in any of its forms, nicotine is released into the body and ultimately into the brain. So how exactly does nicotine affect the brain?
Our brains are made up of billions of nerve cells. They communicate by releasing chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Each neurotransmitter is like a key that fits into a special "lock," called a receptor, located on the surface of nerve cells. When a neurotransmitter finds its receptor, it activates the receptor's nerve cell. The nicotine molecule is shaped like a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine and its receptors are involved in many functions, including muscle movement, breathing, heart rate, learning, and memory. They also cause the release of other neurotransmitters and hormones that affect your mood, appetite, memory, and more.
When nicotine gets into the brain, it attaches to acetylcholine receptors and mimics the actions of acetylcholine. Nicotine also activates areas of the brain that are involved in producing feelings of pleasure and reward.
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Recently, scientists have discovered that nicotine raises the levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in the parts of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. Dopamine is sometimes called the pleasure molecule and is the same neurotransmitter involved in addictions to other drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Researchers now believe that this change in dopamine may play a key role in all addictions. This may also help explain why it is so hard for people to stop smoking.
Nicotine is extremely addicting. All in all, nicotine reinforces the desire to use more because it alters the chemistry of the brain. The perceived stress reduction or pleasant feelings are often relief of withdrawal symptoms. In short, nicotine can be a temporary coping strategy that in the long term leads to dependence, addiction and health problems.
Fortunately, there are many healthy ways to produce dopamine that you can get without nicotine. Exercise, meditation, massage, starting a new hobby, reading, or listening to music, are all natural ways to increase dopamine in your brain.
Another healthy thing tobacco users can do is to reach out for help when they are ready to quit. They can contact the California Smokers' Helpline at 800-662-8887 or go online http://www.nobutts.org to use the online chat feature. This service is free. Text messaging is available to receive texts each day during the first important weeks of quitting. You can also send questions at any time and a counselor will respond within one business day.
The Smoker's Helpline also has a new, free "No Butts" Mobile App for iPhones. No Butts uses proven methods to help you quit, like a personalized quit plan and information on effective quitting aids. The app also has other helpful features like logging your smoking triggers and reminders to keep you motivated.
If you are looking for additional resources to quit smoking or help finding a tobacco cessation class in your area, you may also contact the El Dorado County Tobacco Use Prevention Program (TUPP) at 530-621-6115. TUPP is a program of the El Dorado County Health and Human Services Agency.
Mary Mast is health program specialist with the El Dorado County Health and Human Services Agency's tobacco use prevention program.
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