How Nicotine Alters the Brain to Create the Illusion of Comfort


Do you remember your first cigarette? If you're like most smokers, you started smoking when you were a teenager. You were curious and probably a bit rebellious. Smoking appealed to you because it was something adults did. It seemed mature and sophisticated.

That first cigarette probably made you gag, but that didn't stop you from smoking. You had something to prove. You had to show your friends and the rest of the world that you were cool, so you persisted until you could smoke without choking. Eventually you learned to enjoy it, and that pack of cigarettes became a symbol of your independence. Smoking became a part of your identity.

But somewhere between the first few puffs and the first few packs, something changed, and it's been changing ever since. Today you smoke not because it's cool, but because it makes you feel comfortable. So why do you feel uncomfortable when you don't smoke?

In the next few minutes, you'll learn exactly what changed and why, and it will change forever the way you think about smoking.



The Brain's Reward System

The brain consists of billions of cells, called neurons, that communicate through chemical "messengers" known as neurotransmitters. For each neurotransmitter there is a matching site on the receiving neuron called a receptor.

The neurotransmitter fits into its receptor in much the same way that a key fits into a lock, so the receptor gets the message only when it is "unlocked" by a specific neurotransmitter.

Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter responsible for the release of dopamine, the "feel good" hormone that drives the brain's reward system. This system, sometimes called the pleasure center, is basically a subconscious guide for survival. It encourages those behaviors that are essential to survival by rewarding them with dopamine. It also creates a memory of each event to facilitate repetition.

So what does all of this have to do with nicotine?

The shape of the nicotine molecule is remarkably similar to that of acetylcholine, so much so that it is able to unlock the acetylcholine receptor, thereby releasing dopamine. In other words, nicotine hijacks the part of the brain that determines what is needed for survival, so the "need" for nicotine feels as compelling as the need for food and water.

By the time you finished smoking that first cigarette, most of your acetylcholine receptors were occupied by nicotine. To make matters worse, you initiated a process that would almost certainly lead to addiction.



The Vicious Cycle of Addiction

When you inhale the smoke from a cigarette, nicotine enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain in about 7 seconds. The nicotine from a single cigarette will unlock most of your acetylcholine receptors, releasing enough dopamine to create the feeling you perceive as comfort.

This feeling is transient, however, because nicotine is rapidly metabolized. As nicotine levels drop, so do dopamine levels, and you soon feel the discomfort of nicotine withdrawal.

Meanwhile, your brain mistakenly senses that acetylcholine levels have increased, so it compensates by increasing the number of receptors and reducing their sensitivity. This process is called up-regulation. It results in a higher level of drug tolerance, meaning that you now need larger doses of nicotine to produce the same effect. So you smoke more, causing more up-regulation, and the vicious cycle of addiction is underway.

As nicotine use continues, your brain produces less acetylcholine, making you even more dependent on nicotine for the release of dopamine. Unable to satisfy the growing number of receptors, you fall into an endless succession of lower lows and lower highs. Every cigarette you smoke is a futile attempt to feel as good as you felt before smoking the first one.

Eventually these changes to your brain begin to affect its cognitive function. Rational thinking is compromised, giving way to denial and other forms of "junkie" thinking. Nicotine use becomes compulsive, with your next fix having priority over your values and even your own health.



Escape: Knowledge is Power

You feel uncomfortable when you don't smoke because you're in nicotine withdrawal. As long as you believe that smoking gives you comfort, not smoking will make you feel deprived of that comfort, and you will want to smoke.

When you know that smoking does nothing but postpone withdrawal, there is no sense of deprivation, and real recovery is achievable. Knowledge is power.

Nicotine is eliminated from the body within three days of smoking cessation. The process of up-regulation is reversed. Receptors are re-sensitized and their number restored to pre-addiction levels. This process, called down-regulation, takes about 21 days. Thus the chemical addiction to nicotine is arrested in about 3-4 weeks.

The next phase of recovery deals with the psychological aspect of addiction. Every time you satisfied your need for nicotine, your brain created a memory of the event. Each memory holds a dopamine-reinforced connection between smoking and whatever you were doing, thinking or feeling at the time. These connections now act as powerful smoking triggers, so your objective is to disarm the triggers by breaking the connections. You accomplish this when you encounter similar situations without smoking.

As you break the connections, the junkie thinking will give way to a clear vision of where you have been and where you are going. You will see that this is a journey out of the darkness of denial and into the light of understanding. And finally you will understand that you don't need the drug and that you never did - that it was all an illusion.

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