What is Nicotine? How Does It Work?

What is Nicotine?

Nicotine is likely the most well-known chemical found in tobacco. It's an alkaloid (which means it contains nitrogen) and is chemically similar to substances like caffeine. As well as the tobacco plant, it's found in potatoes, tomatoes and aubergine, though in much smaller quantities.

Once extracted, nicotine resembles an oily colourless to pale yellow liquid, and it can be dried into a powder. It's absorbed into your body by ingestion, inhalation or skin contact.


What does nicotine do?

Nicotine is a stimulant, creating a pleasurable feeling and raising your heart rate. It’s thought that it can improve your ability to focus and boost your memory. It has what's known as a "biphasic" action, so if you have a small amount, it acts as a stimulant, but if you have more, it can help relax you.


How does nicotine work?

Nicotine's effects result from its ability to bind to receptors in your brain. Think of this like a key fitting a lock: each key has a unique shape to match the lock. When nicotine binds to the receptors in your brain, it stimulates the release of "neurotransmitters." These act as chemical messengers used by the brain to send signals. These include:

Dopamine: Probably the most well known; dopamine activates reward pathways in your brain. These pathways are thought to reinforce behaviours that are good for survival - from eating to sex - helping to make you feel happy and at peace.

Adrenaline: Another well-known hormone, this is believed to provide the kick of nicotine. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

Glutamate: Glutamate is involved in the learning and memory part of your brain. These stronger connections may be the physical basis of what we think of as memory.

Endorphins: These are often thought of as the body's natural painkiller and lead to feelings of euphoria.

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