What effect does nicotine have on your brain?

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, but what does it do to your brain?
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A woman smokes and looks out the window

Most people know that smoking is bad for your health. But what many people don’t know is how bad nicotine can be for your brain and mental health.

Nicotine is the addictive chemical found in tobacco products like cigarettes and rollies, and also in vaping devices. Nicotine is highly addictive, which means you become dependent on it. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances in the world, and can be as addictive as heroin for some people.

While nicotine alone does not cause cancer, if you become addicted to it, you will continue to smoke. This puts you at risk of health problems created by the other substances in cigarettes.

Even though vaping devices do not contain the same toxic chemicals that are in cigarettes like tobacco or carbon monoxide, health professionals recommend against using them. E-cigarettes and vapes can also have up to double the amount of nicotine than regular cigarettes.

How nicotine affects the brain

When you smoke, breathe in cigarette smoke or vape, your brain is affected within ten seconds from the first inhale.

You first might feel your heart racing. This is because your brain releases adrenaline when you smoke a cigarette.

You will also feel like you are in a better mood than before. That’s because nicotine also releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that makes you feel good. Your brain then begins to associate nicotine with this feeling.

Over time, as you continue to smoke, your brain builds up a tolerance to nicotine. It starts to need higher amounts to feel the benefits. So you end up smoking more than before to feel the rush of again.

Your brain might also come to expect nicotine in certain situations. If you smoke when you are stressed, your brain might crave the dopamine it creates. You might be craving a cigarette in that moment. You might feel that way even if you have stopped smoking for several months.

Long term nicotine effects

Smoking and nicotine in the long-run can have other negative effects on the brain. You may experience cognitive decline sooner than a non-smoker. Cognitive decline is when you become more forgetful or may not be able to think as quickly as you did before. It usually happens as you get older.

Smokers also are at a greater risk of dementia. This is a condition that can affect your memory, thinking abilities, and language. Your brain might also shrink in size the longer you smoke.

Smoking while your brain is still developing can also cause problems with learning and concentration.

Nicotine & mental health

All of these effects can have a serious impact on your mental health.

Some people might smoke to release stress and anxiety, but smoking actually makes your mental health worse and increases symptoms of anxiety. It also doesn’t deal with underlying causes that may be affecting your mental health.

Quitting smoking can help improve your mental health, even though the initial withdrawal can be difficult.

Read more about how smoking can make your mental health worse. 

What happens to your brain when you quit smoking?

If you quit smoking and if your brain is dependent on nicotine, a few different things will happen to your brain.

Your brain will go into withdrawal, which is when it craves something it no longer has. You might feel more anxious, irritable and crave a cigarette or e-cigarette.

But, while this initial period can be very difficult, your brain will return to normal in time. As that happens, you’ll notice you’ll crave cigarettes and vaping less often. You will eventually not experience these cravings.

Some people might need medical treatment when quitting smoking because of their addiction. This is known as Nicotine Replacement Therapy. Medications are available at pharmacies to help you, like gums and patches. You can also speak to your GP about strategies for quitting.

Read more about Nicotine Replacement Therapy.

Are there are any benefits of nicotine?

Some studies suggest that nicotine may improve memory and concentration. This is because of the initial rush you feel when you smoke.

But, the negative effects of nicotine far outweigh the positive. Nicotine is an addictive chemical that is very damaging to our health.

While it can be difficult to quit, there are many benefits to your health when you do.

Read more about the benefits of quitting smoking.

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