The Smoker's Paradox: Benefiting from Bad Habits?
|By Michael Angelo, Senior Editor on Sunday, July 17, 2011|
|We know smoking is a terrible habit, but did you know there may also be hidden
benefits to tobacco? Find out what has researchers looking into the positive side
There's no doubt that smoking tobacco has well-documented negative health effects. Smoking cigarettes greatly increases users’ risk for heart and lung diseases as well as various cancers. Smokers are also at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes. For these reasons, it's estimated that smoking causes more than 443,000 preventable deaths in the US alone every year, with another 8.6 million surviving with a serious medical condition linked to smoking.
Media sources understandably focus on the many adverse effects of smoking, while nicotine is derided as the addictive chemical element. But nicotine, taken alone and in small doses, has proven links to beneficial health effects without the negative effects of smoking and dependence.
These contradictory findings are known as the “Smoker's Paradox,” beneficial effects from nicotine intake juxtaposed with severely negative effects of smoking. Most significantly, these effects include weight loss and stress reduction.
Many scientific studies suggest that nicotine, alone, can be used to therapeutic effect. The negative effects of smoking cigarettes are often caused by other chemical elements in tobacco or the physical act of smoking; there is still much debate as to whether nicotine intake alone carries the same level of health risk.
Nicotine, alone, is also not technically addictive. While it does increase the sensitivity of the brain’s reward system along with the amount of dopamine in the brain, it does not produce significant physical dependence when administered alone. Unlike other drugs known to be highly addictive, the resultant up-regulation of the reward system actually decreases the users’ perceived need for the drug. Cocaine and heroin cause the user to need larger and larger doses to achieve the same effects; nicotine users actually benefit from smaller doses.
The strong addiction to smoking results from the combination of nicotine’s effects with an inhibitor like those found in tobacco, increasing the behavioral sensitivity related to physical addiction.
It has yet to be proven that nicotine intake alone has similar negative effects to smoking. On the other hand, beneficial effects of nicotine have been proven.
The several significant benefits of nicotine result from its chemical effects on the brain. Nicotine is at once a stimulant and a relaxant, a combination that creates the mood-altering effects in the user which include stress reduction and relaxation along with mental acuity and alertness.
As a result of these effects, nicotine is being targeted as a potential therapeutic treatment for various mental disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
This combination also results in the effect of weight loss. Nicotine stimulates the metabolism while relaxing the appetite. Consensus in animal studies shows that nicotine reduces caloric intake and increases the rate at which calories burn and energy is used. A systemic study also found that nicotine intake induces lipolysis, a process of breaking down fats into compounds which are then burned for energy.
Both stress and weight gain are strongly linked to adverse health risks in the long term, and therapeutic reduction of both by way of nicotine intake is beneficial independent of negative health effects.
Many alternatives to smoking exist for the purpose of consuming nicotine. Gums and patches were introduced in order to wean smokers off cigarettes by supplying similar doses of pure nicotine. But other products like electronic cigarettes are designed to supplant cigarettes entirely, theoretically with the positives of nicotine and none of the negatives of smoking.
Because of the relatively short existence of nicotine alternatives, less is known about the long-term health effects of usage. Nicotine is also highly toxic in large doses and dangers do exist. More research is needed to determine the potential therapeutic uses for nicotine as a stress reducer and an agent for losing weight.
What do you think? Would you buy a weight loss supplement that used nicotine as an active ingredient? Leave your comment below.
 - Tobacco Use, The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, CDC.gov
 - Health Commissioner Petitions FDA to Make Over-the-Counter Nicotine Therapies as Easy to Buy as Cigarettes, New York Department of Health, health.state.ny.us
 - The Female Weight-Control Smoker: A Profile, The Journal of Substance Abuse, deepblue.lib.umich.edu
 - Nicotine: Addictive Drug or Harmless Flavorant, whyfiles.org
 - Dose-response relationship for nicotine-induced up-regulation of rat brain nicotinic receptors, Journal of Neurochemistry, Mendeley.com
 - Nicotine Benefits, Forces.org
 - Nicotine studied as treatment for brain disorders, The Boston Globe
 - Nicotine's role in post-smoking weight gain becomes clearer, The LA Times
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