Nicotine has a very bad rap these days due to its association with tobacco and the horrific diseases that drug causes. But while nicotine is associated with tobacco, they are not the same thing; nicotine is the compound in tobacco which gives it its pleasant effects: reduced tension, heightened focus, greater mental clarity, etc. That’s right: nicotine is actually a powerful nootropic.
When disentangled from tobacco, nicotine is an incredible drug. It is reliable, effective, powerful, and safe (when not consumed along with tobacco or other extremely harmful substances). When compared to things like alcohol or opiates, nicotine can actually look like the perfect drug. Compared to things like Adderall or caffeine, it actually looks like an ideal nootropic.
So what does nicotine do?
How does it promote cognitive function?
How safe is nicotine?
How can you use it as a nootropic?
In the article below, we’ll try to answer all of these questions and more. For the purposes of the article, we will be talking about nicotine and nicotine alone; do not confuse nicotine with tobacco or vapes as they are not the same thing (the latter being dangerous nicotine deliver methods).
What does nicotine do?
Nicotine is a central nervous system stimulant. It also happens to be a sedative, which is why it has seemingly conflicting effects in that it promotes focus and motivation but reduces stress.
Nicotine stimulates the release of two neurotransmitters in the brain which are largely responsible for its pleasing effects.
Specifically, nicotine triggers the release of norepinephrine and dopamine. Norepinephrine is responsible for your fight and flight response, and it is why nicotine elicits feelings of excitement, a sharpening of the senses, increased focus, and exhiliration. Dopamine is your motivating neurotransmitter. It is released when we achieve a goal or obtain something we’ve wanted; it creates a feeling of satisfaction, enjoyment and reward.
This is primarily how nicotine works, and it is how it has such profound effects on the brain. With increasing doses, nicotine acts as a sedative rather than a stimulant; a paradoxical effect common in stimulants which simultaneously dampen brain activity.
Nicotine as a nootropic: Is it effective?
Nicotine is an incredible nootropic.
As explained above, its stimulates the release of multiple different neurotransmitters at the same time.
This gives it multiple, seemingly conflicting effects. It also makes it an ideal nootropic for people who need to get a lot done while staying calm, cool and focused.
The release of norepinephrine triggers a heightening of the senses; you feel immediately more focused, alert, and your ability to process information increases dramatically. You also find it easier to remain focused intensely on one task. This is no doubt why smokers find it particularly hard to read complicated material or study without smoking; their addiction kicks in hardest when they require extra focus.
The release of dopamine will keep you calm and satisfied while the norepinephrine makes you so much more alert and concentrated. Dopamine also supports and promotes motivation and reward-seeking behavior. This is much more powerful an effect than it sounds if you are trying to get through a boring and difficult task.
Nicotine & brain health
We’ve talked about nicotine’s effects on cognitive performance, particularly in reference to executive mental faculties like learning, memory formation, recall, and concentration. We have also discussed how nicotine lowers stress and anxiety through its effect on dopamine.
But a less frequently discussed (potential) benefit of nicotine is its ability to support brain health as we age.
A number of population studies have found that smokers – on average – are less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than non-smokers. Other studies have found the same effect with regards to Alzheimer’s disease.
Unfortunately, the explanation for why this relationship exists is not known. But it does seem to be quite a strong correlation. In fact, some population studies have found that there is a link between the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the chances of developing Alzheimer’s, with more cigarettes meaning a lower disease incidence.
So strong is the effect that nicotine has been studied as a potential palliative for people with mild cognitive impairment. In this study, researchers concluded that:
“Transdermal nicotine can be safely administered to nonsmoking subjects with MCI over 6 months with improvement in primary and secondary cognitive measures of attention, memory, and mental processing, but not in ratings of clinician-rated global impression. We conclude that this initial study provides evidence for nicotine-induced cognitive improvement in subjects with MCI; however, whether these effects are clinically important will require larger studies.”
More work is of course needed, but it seems that nicotine may have a protective effect on brain health.
Side effects: Is nicotine safe?
Nicotine is usually synonymous with tobacco. However, lots of plants contain some nicotine (just not in the same concentrations as nicotine).
Things like tomato, potato, and eggpant contain some nicotine. This surprises people as they assume that nicotine is highly dangerous, but as far as drugs go nicotine is actually extremely safe, at least with regards to serious health effects or long-term risks.
However, nicotine does cause some side effects in almost everybody. The most common side effects of nicotine consumption include:
These side effects are dependent on dose, and users very quickly develop a high tolerance to nicotine and these effects stop.
Yet the main concern with nicotine is not short-term safety and side effects. The main concern with nicotine is the long-term effects that using such an incredibly addictive and powerful drug can have on your body and your mind.
We don’t need to tell you that nicotine is pretty addictive; it is thought to be one of the most addictive drugs in existence. Interestingly, one of the worst effects of nicotine is the withdrawal; once you’re addicted, you will find it practically impossible to focus unless you have some nicotine in your system.
So while addiction and dependence might not fall under our usual definition of “side effect”, it is certainly something to consider before you try using nicotine as a nootropic.
Should you use nicotine as a nootropic?
Obviously, you should not smoke to get the benefits of nicotine. Smoking tobacco in any form – cigarettes, cigars, vaporizers, any of them – does irrepairable and devastating damage to your entire body. Smoking increases the risk of most cancers, particularly of the lung, oesophagus, bowel and pancreas. It increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, and is linked with all-cause mortality.
Simply put, smoking is not worth the benefits of nicotine!
The only readily accessible and safe way to consume any nicotine is to do so through patches. Wearing a nicotine patch will provide a steady stream of nicotine to the body, enhancing focus, motivation, information processing and reducing anxiety.
Is it advisable to use nicotine to promote cognitive performance?
We don’t think so.
Not by a long shot.
Nicotine is extremely addictive. Using it even infrequently makes it highly likely that you will soon become addicted to nicotine and dependent on it. This means that you will need to be constantly consuming nicotine just to remain at baseline. When you are running low on nicotine, you will be cognitive and physically impaired. Severely impaired; you’ll be unable to focus, unable to make good decisions, and extremely irritable.
So long-term, nicotine is not a good option for enhancing cognition. Being reliant on a substance is not good for cognitive performance.
You will also experience severe crashes while using nicotine. When the drug wears off, you’ll find it impossible to concentrate until you take in more nicotine.
Nicotine appears to be a perfect nootropic on paper, but in reality it is far from ideal. It is still an extremely powerful natural nootropic, just not one that is practical for day-to-day use.
Is nicotine going to be the next big smart drug to take the nootropics world by storm? Not likely. Nicotine does have some pretty powerful nootropic effects; it boosts focus and motivation while lowering stress levels. What’s more, nicotine works incredibly quickly, much faster than other nootropics with similar effects. However, the potential side effects and long-term health concerns associated with nicotine use make it a less than ideal choice for a nootropic. Even the supposed long-term benefits of nicotine can be obtained from substances that are nowhere near as addictive. There are better nootropics than nicotine out there for sure.
Brian Johnson is a former academic researcher, psychologist, and tireless proponent of bio-hacking. Brian has dedicated all of his time since leaving academia and private practice to promoting the benefits to be obtained from the application of biotechnology and bio-hacking supplements. He has years of experience with nootropics, as well as prebiotics, probiotics, and other natural nutritional supplements. He has published scholarly research on natural nootropics; you can find his papers on his Google Scholar page.