What is addiction and how does one develop it? The most recent research on the field of addiction suggests that it is rooted from impaired brain chemistry. But how actually does nicotine damage the brain and cause it to become dependent on cigarettes?
To understand nicotine addiction, here are some things you ought to know:
- The human brain is a complex structure that processes and stores information, and directs all other organs in our body to function properly. In addition to these, it also produces chemicals called ‘neurotransmitters’ that regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
- Research has found that certain neurotransmitters are involved in addiction, such as serotonin, GABA, dopamine, endorphins, and norepinephrine. Serotonin functions like a natural anti-depressant. GABA is the neurotransmitter that provides feeling of relaxation. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, providing relief from physical and emotional pain. Dopamine provides feelings of pleasure and helps the brain stay motivated and focused. Norepinephrine provides energy but too much of it could cause damage to the brain.
- In order for the brain to function properly, all these neurotransmitters (along with all others that are not involved in addiction), should be present in the right amounts. Any excess or deficiency may result to a variety of symptoms, such as anxiety, insomnia, violent behavior, irritability, low mood, and cravings for brain-altering substances.
- Besides smoking, some other factors may affect the balance in the neurotransmitters. Prior developing an addiction, neurotransmitters may already be out of balanced due to poor diet, chronic stress, trauma, nutritional deficiency, or a genetic problem.
- The balance of neurotransmitters may also be affected by psychotropic substances, such as nicotine. This is achieved in two ways – first, by stimulating excess supply of some or all of the mentioned neurotransmitters, and second, by mimicking their effects. In return, the brain responds by reducing the production of and responsiveness to a particular neurotransmitter or reducing the number of receptors for the neurotransmitters.
- This is not the way the brain is supposed to respond. So the longer a person smokes and the more depleted the neurotransmitters become, the more dependent he or she becomes to cigarettes. And since the brain is no longer responding properly and/or producing the right amount of neurotransmitters, the smoker experiences undesirable symptoms like headache, anxiety, nausea and cravings during withdrawal.
- Fortunately, it is possible to restore the balance in the neurotransmitters. The first step is to quit smoking today. Withdrawal symptoms are normal because the brain is trying once again to function without being dependent on nicotine. As the days pass, they will wane and the person will crave less for cigarettes.
- Apart from quitting smoking now, one can restore the balance in neurotransmitters by eating healthy, exercising and making positive lifestyle changes. But if quitting is the problem, it can be helpful to seek professional help. There are medications that work by altering the nicotine receptors in the brain, so cravings and other undesirable symptoms are relieved.
- During withdrawal, the ‘addict’ is not really craving for the cigarette but for what it does to the brain.
- There’s very high likelihood for relapse especially during the first weeks and months of not smoking. Others may also experience it even after several years. Therefore, a smoker who’s trying to ditch the habit should make an effort to stay cigarette-free for as long as possible.