Can nicotine gum boost my brain power? (…or am I better off with a strong cuppa?)
Can nicotine gum boost my brain power? (…or am I better off with a strong cuppa?)
smoking Terrible for us. We know this to be unequivocally true. And vaping – while touted as a ‘safe’ option – poses serious health risks of its own.
But users find it hard to quit both habits because of nicotine, the highly addictive chemical they provide. And yet nicotine is growing in popularity as a ‘nootropic’ – a substance that supposedly improves cognitive function without harmful effects.
In his popular podcast, The Huberman Lab, Andrew Huberman, a distinguished neuroscientist and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford University, CaliforniaDiscusses ‘science-based tools for everyday life’.
He recently spoke about his own occasional use of small amounts of nicotine for its cognitive benefits.
When it enters the body, nicotine can temporarily induce a feeling of well-being through an increase in endorphins. It can also improve concentration and memory.
And, once you look into it, you discover that a surprising number of people — from medical students to CEOs — subtly inject their brains with nicotine in the form of lozenges, gum, sprays, or patches (the type of product most commonly used). changing chemistry to quit smoking), to improve their cognitive performance.
Smoking is bad for us. We know this to be unequivocally true. And vaping – while touted as a ‘safe’ option – poses serious health risks of its own. But users find it difficult to quit both habits because of nicotine, which they find highly addictive
These advocates know how dangerous smoking can be, but they want to exploit the effects of nicotine, a powerful drug widely available from supermarkets and high street chemists.
Smoking is harmful to us because it produces toxic substances like carbon monoxide and tar. Nicotine, by contrast, is not overtly harmful in small amounts—its most significant risk is what makes smoking so addictive in the first place.
Still, nicotine carries risks: increases blood pressure and heart rate, narrows arteries and hardens their walls, increasing the likelihood of heart attack or stroke with regular use.
Yet Dr James Gill, a GP and lecturer at Warwick Medical School, who has seen an increase in awareness of nootropics among students, says, ‘People are increasingly finding ways to hack their bodies with nootropics, one example being the widely available and legal nicotine’.
He said: ‘We have nicotinic receptors throughout the brain and body. Ingesting nicotine stimulates these receptors to produce one of our nervous system’s most important chemical messengers, as well as dopamine, another chemical messenger, and the hormone adrenaline – with wide-ranging effects that can improve mood, motivation and focus.’
Nicotine starts to take effect after two to 15 minutes and lasts about 45 minutes. The drug has a half-life (meaning the time it takes for your body to lose half of the active substance) of about two hours.
Dr Gill added: ‘Nicotine also appears to activate receptors in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that transforms our short-term thoughts into long-term memories. So when we take nicotine, it can also help stimulate memory.’
The truth is that humans have been using nicotine for thousands of years. The drug is found naturally in a variety of plants – including nightshades such as tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and potatoes.
Smoking is harmful to us because it produces toxic substances like carbon monoxide and tar. In contrast, nicotine is not overtly harmful in small amounts—it’s most significant risk is what makes smoking so addictive in the first place
But it is found in the highest levels of the tobacco plant (named after Nicotiana tabacum, a plant named after Jean Nicot, a French ambassador who sent tobacco from Brazil to Paris in 1560, promoting its medicinal use for health problems, including headaches). Andrew Huberman devoted a recent episode of his podcast to nicotine, talking about an anonymous Nobel Prize winner who regularly chewed nicotine gum because of growing research that nicotine may prevent age-related cognitive decline.
When it comes to its benefits for focus, Dr Rachel Taylor, a neuropsychologist at the University of Manchester, says: ‘Neurotransmitters are important for our focus and state of mind. It is interesting to note that individuals with schizophrenia, adult ADHD, and major depression often smoke more than populations without these disorders.
‘All of these conditions involve an inability to focus on certain stimuli while avoiding others, and it may be that they are effectively self-medicating with nicotine.’
He adds: ‘It also helps with bowel movements. However, it can be toxic and fatal in high doses.’ If taken in excess, nicotine can be toxic. Although extreme toxicity is relatively rare, it has become more common in recent years due to new nicotine products such as e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine. Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include nausea, dizziness, abnormal heartbeat and increased blood pressure.
And, as Dr. Gill explains, even a little too much can diminish any cognitive benefits. ‘Nicotine shows an “inverted J-dose response”, meaning that while low doses and short exposures may provide a benefit, higher, longer doses may actually impair cognitive function,’ he says.
Then, of course, there’s the inevitable issue of how addictive nicotine is. Dr Gill said: ‘It’s addictive because it increases dopamine, which feels good – and especially if you use a delivery method like cigarettes that hits the brain almost immediately.’
Secrets to an A-List Body: How to Get the Enviable Body of a Star
This week: Tess Daly’s Waist
The jumpsuit she wore to the launch of Strictly Come Dancing highlighted presenter Tess Daly’s trim waist
The jumpsuit she wore to the launch of Strictly Come Dancing highlighted presenter Tess Daly’s trim waist.
The 53-year-old mum keeps fit by swimming, trampolining and yoga — ‘I don’t like to sweat too much’ — and often starts her day by skipping five minutes.
What to try: This walk-out tones the core, strengthens the shoulders, and stretches the legs and lower back.
Start standing with your feet slightly apart, reach down into a forward fold and place your hands in front of your feet. Shift your weight onto your hands and walk forward until your back, hips and heels are in a plank, with your palms and toes supporting you.
Take a few breaths, then return your arms to the starting position.
Repeat three sets of five each day.
Brain growth slows down with regular use, he says. ‘Your body has a thermostat for everything. If you have too much exposure to a substance, the benefits will diminish, as your brain learns to compensate and you want and need more to achieve the same effect.’
As a lifelong non-smoker who relies on nothing stronger than a regular mug of PG Tips to get me through writing time at my kitchen table, I have to admit to some curiosity about nicotine’s nootropic benefits. I decided to do my own careful investigation and consult with David Tommen, a self-styled ‘nootropics expert’ and author of Secrets of the Optimized Brain, about how to proceed.
He warns me that the original dose is kept low. ‘And only use it occasionally. Too much nicotine sensitizes the receptors, so tolerance is a problem. But your receptors recover fairly quickly if you give them a break for a day.’
I decided to experiment with a lower dose, separately, to see if the nicotine did anything to my productivity.
Chewing gum: I start by trying a piece of nicotine gum, which contains 2 mg of nicotine (a smoker typically gets between 1 mg and 2 mg of nicotine from each cigarette). I chew enthusiastically before sitting down to work and find myself, to my surprise, only ten minutes later, nauseous and shaky. It is deeply unpleasant and not conducive to concentration. I ended up gagging over the basin.
When I asked Dr Gill where I went wrong, he said: ‘You’re in shock, just like you would be if you’ve never had any caffeine and decided to have a double espresso. Even a 2mg dose is enough to make you feel that way if you’re not used to it.’ This reaction is called ‘Nick Sick’. I shudder to think that an increasing number of children are vaping and exposing themselves to large amounts of nicotine.
Lozenges: After a few days, I slowly suck a 1mg nicotine lozenge — David Tommen says it’s a ‘safe and effective delivery for using nicotine as a nootropic’ with ‘much less toxic ingredients than other delivery methods’. This time, there is no shaking or nausea, instead I feel a noticeable lift, as if I am running or drinking a strong coffee: I can feel the adrenaline. It alerts me. I can see how addictive it can be.
Spray: Nicotine sprays are faster and more pleasant to use than gum or lozenges and provide the same noticeable lift as lozenges. I also find that I’m less hungry at lunchtime – decreased appetite is another nicotine side-effect. When I asked about the risk of addiction, Dr Gill said, ‘daily use can develop dependence – and perhaps in weeks rather than months’.
The patch: I end my foray into nicotine with the Nicorette patch. Here the release of nicotine into the bloodstream is slowed. The lowest dose is a 7mg patch, which is supposed to be released over 24 hours. However, I don’t feel any jitters and I probably feel more focused and productive. But as Dr Gill says: ‘If you think something will help you focus better, it probably will.’
All that being said, there’s no doubt that nicotine provides a cognitive boost if you get past the side-effects of a novice, and I can see how it could be enticing for students or educators. But I’m afraid of developing any kind of dependency — and skeptical of the growing nootropics industry that suggests we look beyond healthy behaviors like exercise and good nutrition to ‘optimize’ our existence.
Perhaps Dr Gill said it best: ‘We are all human-shaped bundles of chemicals. There are many things we can do to change these chemicals – sometimes for the positive and sometimes for the negative.
‘But if you’re going to mess with your chemistry, don’t forget that your chemistry is going to mess with you.’
#nicotine #gum #boost #brain #power #…or #strong #cuppa