Nicotine is the tobacco plant‘s natural protection from being eaten by insects. Its widespread use as a farm crop insecticide is now being blamed for killing honey bees. A super toxin, drop for drop it is more lethal than strychnine or diamondback rattlesnake venom and three times deadlier than arsenic. Yet amazingly, by chance, this natural insecticide’s chemical signature is so similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that once inside the brain it fits a host of chemical locks permitting it direct and indirect control over the flow of more than 200 neuro-chemicals, most importantly dopamine.
What Are Dopamine Pathways?
What is dopamine? It’s hard to understand nicotine addiction, or any form of drug addiction for that matter, without a basic understanding of the brain’s primary motivation neurotransmitter, dopamine. The brain’s dopamine pathways serve as a built-in teacher. It uses a desire, yearning or wanting sensation to get our attention when it wants to pound home a survival lesson necessary to keep us humans alive and thriving.
Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to go without eating, to actually starve yourself to death, or for that matter, to die of thirst? Why do we seek acceptance by our peers, want companionship, and desire a mate or sexual relations? Why do we feel anxiety when bored and an “aaah” sense of relief when we complete a task?
Remember the very first time your parents praised you for keeping your coloring between the lines? Remember the “aaah” sensation? That was dopamine, the satisfaction of your wanting to succeed. The deep inner primitive brain (the limbic mind) is hard-wired, via dopamine pathways, to keep us drinking liquids, fed, together (there’s “safety in numbers”), while achieving and reproducing.
When we feel hunger our dopamine pathways are being stimulated, teasing us with anticipation “wanting” for food. If kept waiting, the anticipation may build into urges or even full-blown craves. Each bite we eat further stimulates dopamine flow until stomach peptides at last tell the brain we’re full and wanting becomes satisfied.
But our brain doesn’t stop with simply creating and satisfying wanting associated with species survival events such as eating, drinking liquids, bonding, nurturing, accomplishment and sex. It makes sure that we don’t forget them, that in the future we pay close attention to these activities.
The brain associates and records how each particular wanting was satisfied in the most durable, high-definition memory the mind may be capable of generating. It does so by hard-wiring dopamine pathway neuro-transmissions into our conscious memory banks (the prefrontal cortex), where each is linked to the event that satisfied dopamine pathway wanting, hunger and yearning.
Now ponder this. What would happen if, by chance, an external chemical existed that once introduced into the bloodstream was small enough to pass and cross through the blood/brain barrier (a protective filter), and once inside the brain were somehow able to activate and turn on our mind’s dopamine pathway circuitry? Could that chemical hijack the mind’s priorities teacher? If so, how long would it take before continuing chemical use resulted in the person becoming totally yet falsely convinced that using more of the chemical was as important as eating food?
Hunger for food, hunger for nicotine. Food craves, nicotine craves. “Aaah” wanting satisfaction while taking bites, “aaah” wanting satisfaction while replenishing nicotine reserves. Welcome to the addict’s world of nicotine normal, a world built on lies. For if we don’t eat food we die, while if we stop using nicotine we thrive.
Have we oversimplified an extremely complicated topic?!?! While dopamine pathway stimulation is the common thread between chemical addictions (including cocaine, heroin, meth, nicotine and alcoholism), my simplified explanation does not explain why users initially continue using the drug prior to a growing pile of dopamine pathway high-definition use memories begging them to use more. Nor does it explain why most regular nicotine users get hooked but not all, or why quitting is often accompanied by withdrawal symptoms.
Although enhanced dopamine flow is associated with all chemical addictions, each chemical differs in how it triggers or enhances stimulation, how long stimulation lasts, and each chemical’s ability to produce a different “high” sensation by interacting with other neuro-chemicals and pathways.
Aside from enhancing dopamine flow, nicotine is a legal central nervous system stimulant that activates the body’s fight or flight response. This results in an alert stimulated high, which allows us nicotine addicts to feel different or even superior to illegal drug addicts who fill the world’s prisons. This despite the fact that this year addiction to smoking nicotine is expected to kill 17 times as many Americans as all illegal drugs combined.
While nicotine stimulates the nervous system, alcohol has the opposite effect in actually depressing it and slowing normal brain function. Heroin’s dopamine stimulation is accompanied by an endorphine high, resulting in a short yet intense numbing or analgesic effect. Cocaine’s high is a sense of stimulated euphoria associated with delaying normal clean-up (re-uptake) of multiple neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin and nor-adrenaline), while methamphetamine is the maximum speed stimulant.
Again, the common thread between each of these addictions is that the brain’s dopamine pathways were taken hostage and left the drug addict totally yet falsely convinced that continuing drug use was important to their survival, that their drug gave them their edge, helped them cope and that life without it would be horrible.
What we nicotine addicts could not see was that our beliefs and thinking about that next fix were unworthy of belief. Once hooked it was too late. Dopamine pathway generated pay-attention memories were so vivid and durable that they quickly buried all remaining memory of life without nicotine. Gone were our pre-addiction memories of the calm, quiet and beauty of the mind we once called home.
It’s why getting off of drugs is so difficult. It’s why half of the smokers we see each day will eventually smoke themselves to death. While their friends and loved ones scream the insanity of their continued self-destruction, their brain dopamine pathways scream even louder that continuing drug use is as important as life itself. Who should they believe, their limbic mind’s begging for that next fix, or the outside world’s begging for them to stop.
Here a just a few thins that might help change you into a non-smoker faster.
You,,,, yes you have got to b e willing to give up the things you want NOW for the things you want the MOST. That is, smoking a cigarette might feel good now, but more than feeling good now, I want a health over being addicted. It may help to put something in your mind, and your home to remind you of the thing you want the most with as your quitting cigarettes.
It’s NEVER too late to start over. Try again. Out of all the failures it only takes one success to be smoke free. Only one is all. In other words, if temptation gets the best of you, don’t give in to feelings of failure. Go back to being a non-smoker! Don’t let failure weaken your ability to kick the habit.
Finally, you might find someone to be accountable to. That might be a Family member , friend, boss or your husband. It’s got to be somebody who you know wants the best for you and is willing to get in your face to make sure that you get it. Time to call you best friend maybe!