Nicotine is a psychoactive and addictive drug, and it’s ultimately the reason we vape. When we puff on an e-cigarette (or a cigarette), nicotine is taken down into our lungs and then passes into the bloodstream. From there it reaches the brain (for cigarettes, this is within 10 seconds of inhalation) and produces its effects, including the pleasurable sensations that smokers are looking for and the neurochemical interactions ultimately leading to addiction.
Although it’s more well-known as a stimulant, it has both stimulating and relaxing effects, with smokers taking shorter, sharper puffs to achieve a stimulating effect and longer, deeper drags to produce relaxation. This is due to differences in blood nicotine levels achieved with each puffing method, with higher blood nicotine levels causing the more relaxing effects.
This “biphasic” action of nicotine leads to a fairly wide range of effects. The stimulating side of nicotine can improve attention, memory, information-processing and alertness, but at higher dosages it can lead to feelings of relaxation and exhibits pain-killing properties. Physically, nicotine increases your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, as well as increasing your blood glucose and in the process reducing your appetite.
Nicotine and Addiction
Although nicotine is only one of the elements of cigarette smoke that leads to addiction, it is still an addictive substance on its own (just less so than when consumed in cigarettes). This is due to the interaction it has with the “reward” system of the brain, and as with many drugs, it impacts on the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Eventually, the brain becomes tolerant to the effects of nicotine, and more is needed to produce the same effect – this is when addiction sets in. The brain has adapted to the continuous supply of nicotine, and as a result, if you don’t have nicotine, you experience withdrawal symptoms. Most smokers (and vapers) will recognize the agitation, irritability and general psychological discomfort that comes with needing another hit of nicotine.
However, tobacco smoke also contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which exacerbate nicotine’s effect on the dopamine system and thereby make smoking even more addictive. Research has shown that vapers are less addicted than smokers and that e-cigarettes deliver nicotine more slowly than cigarettes.