The Benefits of Nicotine

014What your doctor doesn’t want you to know about nicotine.

So I’m writing a blog about the benefits of nicotine.  I mean, 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, yes, but my colleagues will ostracize me, and the anti-tobacco mafia will flatten me dead before I can upload this article. Strange thing is 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 – where there’s a big sign reading, “Beware of Carcinogenic Chemicals: Hazmat Suits Required.”  Alternatively, I’ve been blind-folded and flown to a secret warehouse in Colombia, where I now stand amidst a gaggle of Big Tobacco engineers – and a vial of clear fluid in my hand.  In this version of the story, I’ve been paid a million dollars to write this blog.  Whatever the case, money or not, someone utters three important words: “This is nicotine.”

Here it is: an anticlimactic, boring vial of clear liquid.  What, the fountain of tainted youth?  The essence of venomous glory?  Shouldn’t it fizz through the testtube and melt my hand away?  Shouldn’t I die on the spot?  Oh, the horror.

Okay, you’ve got the image.  This stuff’s led millions of people to their deaths — and I’m about to sing its praises.  (That’s my second disclaimer: I promise it’s the last.)

So what are the benefits of nicotine?  If you want articles cited and literature that supports everything I’m about to tell you, please see the end of this article.  Keep in mind it’s a biased batch of information: I’ve only included the ones that support what I’m about to say.  For those who want everything in a nutshell, start here and keep reading.

021There are at least five diseases or disorders with evidence supporting the effectiveness of nicotine in either minimizing symptoms or preventing the illness altogether.  See bibliography at the end of this article for more information.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder which leads to progressive loss of control over movement.  Symptoms include tremor, stiffness, slowness, impaired balance, a shuffling gait, problems eating, and eventually dementia.  Studies suggest that smokers are less likely to get Parkinson’s disease than non-smokers.  The benefits of tobacco for avoiding Parkinson’s seems to be linked to the amount of tobacco a person uses. That is, the more tobacco consumed, the more beneficial it is to the patient.  Of note, ex-smokers seem to have a lower risk of contracting the disease compared to nonsmokers.

Ulcerative Colitis (UC) is a digestive tract disorder caused by inflammation of the colon’s inner lining and the rectal wall, which become red, swollen, and ulcerated.  This causes bouts of severe abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and diarrhea; serious complications include intestinal blockage, liver disease, cancer, and death.  Studies suggest UC is an illness of non and ex-smokers.  Even passive smoking seems to reduce the risk.  Among people with UC, those who smoke typically have later onset, fewer exacerbations, need less medication, and require fewer surgeries.

Alzheimer’s Disease is marked by memory problems that affect an individual’s abilities to take care of himself.  The mechanism behind this disease is related to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, the substance found at the nicotinic receptors in the brain.  Studies suggest that nicotine improves attention, memory, thinking, and performance in people with Alzheimer’s.  As an aside, nicotine has even been found helpful in memory and attention in people who don’t have dementia. 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 they wouldn’t usually take. 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 is marked the presence of tics, both physical and vocal.  Studies suggest nicotine gum or patch can diminish tic behaviors by 50% — and that improvement lasts days or weeks after the nicotine is withdrawn.

People with Schizophrenia suffer from hallucinations, delusions, confused thinking, and personality changes that interfere with their ability to live independently.  They tend to be smokers, and they smoke a lot: three packs/day isn’t unusual.  The theory is they’re self-medicating.  Research shows that Schizophrenics who smoke do better on cognitive tests than when they abstain from smoking for a prolonged period of time; that is, when smoking, they demonstrated superior test results in attention, visuospatial and working memory, sensory gating (ability to ignore unimportant stimuli), and ability to juggle multiple ideas at once).  Of interest, some studies suggest smoking is a protective factor against developing Schizophrenia.

Potential benefits of nicotine aren’t limited to the above-mentioned conditions.  Research suggests the chemical might be helpful for Hyperactivity Disorder and Hypersomnulance (excessive daytime sleepiness), as well as diminish the risk of obesity.

Alex Natalian, Psychiatrist and Author     Alex Natalian is a pseudonym for psychiatrist KRR.




Bibliography/More reading

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