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Why is Smoking Addictive?

Over one billion people smoke worldwide, and 7.7 million global deaths are thought to be the result of tobacco-related health issues, making smoking one of the leading causes of preventable deaths. Although smoking is viewed as a common activity in the modern-day, its negative health consequences are not to be forgotten.


Is Smoking Really Addictive? 

Addiction refers to the repeated compulsion to continue using a substance or performing a behaviour, despite the adverse effects that this behaviour has.


There is a continued debate as to whether or not smoking is actually addictive, but scientific and anecdotal research confirms that smoking tobacco is definitely addictive.


Nicotine is one of the naturally occurring compounds in tobacco and it is thought to be as addictive as heroin or cocaine, making it a potentially dangerous substance for the body. Even infrequent use of cigarettes can lead to dependence due to their nicotine content.

 

Most people make around 30 attempts before successfully quitting smoking.


What Are the Symptoms of Tobacco and Nicotine Addiction?

The symptoms of tobacco and nicotine addiction are widely recognized. Most people who smoke, whether they have attempted to quit smoking or not, will experience addiction in a similar way. 


Depending on the severity of the addiction and individual characteristics, these symptoms can vary slightly, but they follow the same pattern.


The symptoms of addiction may include

  • The inability to stop smoking, despite attempting to quit
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit
  • Feeling the urge to smoke at specific times of the day (e.g.- just after a meal, or in between classes or meetings)
  • Using tobacco products to cope with stress or other strong emotions
  • Continuing to smoke despite being aware of the negative effects it has on health

Who is Likely to Become Addicted to Smoking? 

Anybody can experience nicotine dependency at pretty much any age.


However, studies show that those who start smoking during their teenage years are more likely to become addicted, even if they only intend to smoke for a few years. Nearly 9 out of every 10 adults who smoke say that they started smoking before the age of 18, and nearly all of these adults started before the age of 26.

 

How Does Nicotine Affect Your Body and Brain? 

Most people are aware of the negative effects that smoking has on your cardiovascular system, but fewer people are aware of how nicotine can affect the body and brain.

 

Nicotine is a plant compound that gets absorbed into your body through your lungs when you smoke a cigarette. Once it enters the blood, it rapidly spreads to other areas of your body.


A small amount of nicotine can provide a much-needed distraction from the worries of everyday life, and this is what causes smoking cravings. It acts in a similar way to many other drugs. It overtakes the brain’s reward systems and gives you a rush of pleasure.


When nicotine enters the brain, nicotine binds to the same receptors as dopamine (acetylcholine receptors), a neurotransmitter that is found naturally in your body.


Dopamine is responsible for giving us motivation and feeling a sense of achievement. When nicotine binds these receptors, it, therefore, provides you with these same feelings and boosts your mood.


Nicotine reaches your brain within just a few seconds of breathing in a puff of cigarette smoke, but its effects are very short-lived. After just a few minutes, the levels of nicotine within the brain drop down to pre-cigarette levels, causing you to want another cigarette.


This nicotine craving wears off for a short while if you don’t reach for another cigarette. However, the withdrawal symptoms can kick in after a few hours if you ignore your smoking cravings and they will get worse and worse if you don’t smoke again soon after.

 

It’s important to note that this doesn’t result in the same kind of withdrawal symptoms that people who are trying to quit smoking will experience. This nicotine craving wears off after a while if you don’t reach for another cigarette.


The longer you smoke and the more you smoke, the higher your nicotine dependence becomes and the stronger your nicotine craving becomes. This is unsurprising when nicotine has such a strong impact on your brain. The higher your blood nicotine levels, the more tobacco you need to reach these levels, causing you to increase your smoking frequency.


Over time, your brain begins to compensate for the increased activation of your acetylcholine receptors by reducing their abundance and this results in nicotine addiction.


You can become so physically and emotionally attached to smoking that it results in the strong withdrawal symptoms that are associated with taking a detox from smoking.


There are some notable negative consequences of long-term nicotine exposure on the body and the brain that you should be aware of.


Cognitive Decline

One of the most concerning effects of cigarette smoking on the brain is cognitive decline. Although you will naturally experience this regardless of your smoking status, this decline may be faster in those who regularly smoke compared to those who don’t.


Studies also show that the nicotine in cigarettes can affect your sleep, which may contribute to impaired cognitive abilities.


Reduced Brain Volume

One study showed that the longer you smoke, the higher your risk of age-related loss of brain volume. Of course, there are multiple factors that contribute to loss of brain mass, but these findings are concerning nonetheless. The researchers found that smoking negatively affected the structural integrity of subcortical brain regions in particular.


Increased Risk of Dementia

There is also an increased risk of dementia in those who smoke. Nicotine and other carcinogens found in tobacco smoke can affect the areas of the brain involved in memory, language, and judgment, and may increase your risk of developing dementia by 30%.


Increased Risk of Stroke

According to the CDC, those who smoke are 2-4 times more likely to suffer from a stroke than those who don't smoke. This is because the carcinogens in cigarette smoke increase the stickiness of your blood, increasing the chances of a blood clot forming and increasing the risk of stroke. Luckily, your risk of having a stroke returns to a similar level as a non-smoker's risk after five years of quitting.


Increased Risk of Cancer

There are over 60 toxic chemicals in tobacco that can damage the cells in your body, particularly those found in your lungs, throat, mouth, liver, and pancreas, potentially contributing to the development of cancer in these vital areas of the body. Smokers are more likely to die from lung cancer than non-smokers and smoking is responsible for around 70% of all lung cancer cases.


How Addictive is Nicotine and Why is it So Hard to Quit Smoking? 

Out of every three people who smoke, two of them will have attempted to quit smoking at some point in the past. On average, most smokers will try quitting once every year, but they end up failing due to experiencing intense withdrawal symptoms and nicotine cravings.


The negative side effects that come along after you quit smoking can be hard to deal with. Most people end up giving in and reaching for another cigarette to get rid of the unpleasant feelings and relieve their smoking cravings. This cycle is the main reason why quitting smoking is so difficult and why nicotine addiction is a serious problem!


Some of the most common symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include the following.

  • Dizziness and fatigue
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increase appetite and weight gain
  • Slower heart rate
  • Coughing and dry throat
  • Tightness in the chest


Is the Nicotine in E-Cigarettes Addictive? 

The liquids found in e-cigarettes contain nicotine in the same form as the nicotine found in tobacco products. However, the nicotine levels in different e-cigarettes are often not disclosed, making it difficult to determine how much nicotine you are actually consuming when you use an e-cigarette product.


Just because you are using an e-cigarette and not smoking a tobacco-based cigarette, it does not mean that you are not fuelling your nicotine dependency. One study has shown that the nicotine in e-cigarettes may actually be more addictive and that use of e-cigarettes in young adults may result in higher nicotine dependency.



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