Addiction · Other · Uncategorized

The benefits of nicotine

Do not smoke
Please no smoking

So I’m writing a blog about the benefits of nicotine.  I’m supposed to tell people not to smoke. That’s what doctors do, right? Already I worry about the consequences: e-cigarette companies will declare me a hero, but I’ll be ostracized by my colleagues, and the anti-tobacco mafia will flatten me dead before I have a chance to upload this article. But there are benefits to nicotine. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Tobacco is BAD for you.

The scene unfolds.  Let me warn you: I’ve got a good imagination.  I’m walking through one of those top-secret government buildings, the ones with whitewashed walls and doors that require a hose-down before allowing passage. There’s a big sign reading, “Beware of Carcinogenic Chemicals: Hazmat Suits Required.”  A minute later I stand amidst a gaggle of Big Tobacco engineers, and someone slips a vial of clear liquid into my gloved hand.  A voice utters three important words: “This is nicotine.”

What, the fountain of tainted youth?  The essence of venomous glory?  Shouldn’t it fizz through the test tube and melt my hand away?  Shouldn’t I die on the spot?  Oh, the horror.

Really, it’s disappointing.  It’s nothing but a vial of clear liquid.


Okay, you’ve got the idea. [Doctor climbs onto her soapbox.]  I have to say it: mixed with tobacco, this vial of clear fluid has indirectly led tens of millions of people to their death. The consequences of tobacco are nasty. It’s a slow death. Air hunger is a terrifying thing to watch. Please don’t use nicotine products. That’s my second disclaimer: I promise it’s the last. [Doctor steps down off soapbox.]

So what are the benefits of nicotine? 

Nicotine has been shown to reduce symptoms in many diseases, and in some cases prevent or delay onset altogether. You’ll find a partial list below.

Parkinson’s disease (PD).

PD is a disease that leads to gradual loss of control over movement.  Symptoms include a slow tremor, stiffness without pain, problems initiating movement, a shuffling gait, and eventually long-term memory problems.  In general it’s a painless condition but very debilitating.

Yep, nicotine trumps PD. More specifically, studies show that smokers are less likely to develop PD than nonsmokers.  The more a person smokes, the lower the risk of coming down with the condition. Even after quitting, ex-smokers have a lower risk of developing PD than nonsmokers. Doctors can’t explain this phenomena. An interesting fact: the benefit seems to be related to tobacco itself, not nicotine.

Ulcerative Colitis (UC)

UC is an intestinal disorder caused by inflammation of the colon and rectum.  This causes bouts of severe abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and diarrhea. People with UC frequently develop intestinal blockage, liver disease, and cancer, and often die because of complications. 

Like Parkinson’s Disease, UC is an illness of non and ex-smokers.  Smokers have a lower risk of developing the disease, and those smokers unfortunate enough to get it tend to have a better prognosis than non-smokers.  They have a later onset and fewer flare-ups, need less medication, and require fewer surgeries. Even passive smoking seems to reduce the risk and improve prognosis.  

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)

AD is a disease that causes memory problems and, as the illness progresses, personality changes, inability to communicate, and poor self-care.  It’s linked to changes in brain chemistry and anatomy, including decreased “firing” of the nicotine receptors. 

Decreased “firing” of the nicotine receptors? It makes sense, then, that nicotine in tobacco or alone would improve the picture. This turns out to be true. Nicotine improves attention, memory, thinking, and performance in people with Alzheimer’s. 

An interesting aside: nicotine improves cognition in people without AD, at least termporarily. In one study, scientists tested pilots by giving them (1) nicotine gum, (2) Aricept (a medication used for Alzheimer’s Disease), (3) a bit of alcohol eight hours before their flight, OR (4) nothing. I’m not sure about the ethics of giving alcohol to pilots, but the results were fascinating: those that took Aricept or nicotine demonstrated superior attention, learning, and visual memory than those who drank or took nothing.

Tourette’s Syndrome (TS)

People with TS experience hard-to-control flashes of movement and vocalizations. These are called tics. Tics are a cross between involuntary and compulsive experiences. They can be embarrassing, as well as painful.

For some reason, nicotine seems to reduce tics in people with TS.  According to research, nicotine gum or the nicotine patch can actually diminish tic behaviors by 50% — and that improvement lasts days or weeks after the nicotine is withdrawn.

Schizophrenia

People with Schizophrenia suffer from hallucinations, false belief systems, confused thinking, and personality changes that interfere with their ability to live independently. 

For unclear reasons, almost all Schizophrenics smoke, and they smoke a lot: three packs/day isn’t unusual.  The theory is they’re self-medicating.  Research shows that Schizophrenics perform better on cognitive tests when they smoke. Attention improves. They have more motivation and naturally expressed emotion.  Of interest, some studies suggest smoking decreases the chance of developing Schizophrenia.

Other

Finally, it’s important to mention that potential benefits of nicotine aren’t limited to the these five conditions.  Research suggests the chemical might be helpful in the short run for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and excessive daytime sleepiness, as well as to prevent weight gain.


I promised I’d avoid additional disclaimers. But I’ve reached the final sentence, and as a doctor I’m supposed to talk anti-tobacco until my mouth gets dry and hurts. The best warning I can muster: please type “photos disease smokers” into your favorite search engine, then click “images.”  The pictures are scary.

 

 

Bibliography/More reading

You’ll find a list of sources below.  Don’t be convinced by the “grandeur” of the list.  At first glance, it’s very convincing.  Just keep in mind: for every article you see below, there are 20 articles proving just the opposite.

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