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 for motivation.
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 to the brain?
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 Prescriptions: Who is using nicotine today?
Given its main effects on the brain, it isn’t a surprise to learn that the demand for nicotine products is showing no sign of decline even as demand for tobacco diminishes.
Instead of smoking, a lot of people are accessing prescription nicotine products., as shown in the graph below:
Many smokers are depserate for nicotine products, not just because of addiction, but because nicotine can speed up reaction time, improve working memory, and enhance focus and attention – things it is hard to live without once you stop smoking!
Some non-smokers have even started using nicotine gum or patches as a nootropic rather than as a replacement to tobacco.
Nicotine as a nootropic: What are the benefits?
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. Below is a more detailed overview of the main benefits of nicotine as a nootropic.
Nicotine for Focus & Concentration
Nicotine is arguably the single most effective nootropic for boosting focus and concentration. Nicotine is almost unique in the way it sharpens focus and prevents you from becoming distracted without also causing anxiety, jitters or energy crashes.
The release of norepinephrine triggered by nicotine resuls in 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. Your reaction times get faster and your decision making becomes more decisive.
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. In fact, one of the main reasons people cite for continuing to smoke despite the health risks is that they find it impossible for ocus without cigarettes.
Nicotine for Anxiety
Surprisingly for a CNS stimulant, nicotine is also a highly effective nootropic for anxiety. This is another benefit of nicotine that we are already familiar with from tobacco; smokers will feel and appear instantly more relaxed after taking their first drag of a cigarette. This is because nicotine also triggers a huge release of dopamine in the brain.
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.
There is also evidence to show that nicotine consumption spikes GABA and serotonin levels in the brain. According to one study, “Acute nicotine administration increases GABA release by binding to excitatory presynaptic nACh receptors located on GABA neurons“. This would have the effect of drastically lowering anxiety and promoting sleep.
Nicotine for Motivation
Motivation is probably the biggest nootropic benefit of nicotine. Consuming nicotine is associated with an almost instant and powerful increase in motivation and drive. This is the result of the enormous spike in dopamine you experience after nicotine hits your brain. Nicotine binds to nicotinic receptors in the brain, augmenting the release of numerous neurotransmitters, including dopamine.
Dopamine is primarily responsible for motivational behavior control. It is often referred to as a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, but it is more accurate to say that dopamine is a reward signal which drives goal-seeking behavior. Consuming nicotine helps keep dopamine levels elevated, which helps you stay focused and motivated to complete tasks that would otherwise be boring or mentally draining. Nicotine is actually one of the most effective motivation-boosting nootropics you can buy.
Nicotine for Creativity
This is one big benefit of nicotine, although it is rarely mentioned on best nootropics rankings pages. Nicotine can help make you more creative by fostering more fluid thinking, reducing brain fog associated with anxiety, and by raising levels of all the most important neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA).
In practical terms, nicotine helps artists enter into a ‘flow state’; a state of intense focus and peak mental immersion which is characterized by a loss of time perception and more dynamic, fluid thought processes. Lots of artists consume nicotine constantly while they work because they find it helps them stay compeltely immersed in their work for hours on end.
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. It is certainly one of the most addictive nootropics you can use. 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.
Nicotine Gum For Studying?
For infrequent use, nicotine can be a very effective study aid. Students and professionals who need to cram for an exam, project deadline or presentation may find that nicotine gum allows them to study for hours on end without getting distracted or succumbing to fatigue. Nicotine gum, when used in moderation, can help prevent mental burnout and keep you motivated during late-night study sessions.
However, to avoid addiction, nicotine gum needs to be used sparingly. It is a powerful study aid, not something to rely on every day to maintain normal cognitive performance. We’ll say it again: nicotine is not suitable for use as an everyday cognitive enhancer. For daily cognitive enhancement, we recommend using a natural nootropic stack like NooCube.
Bottom line: Is nicotine a good nootropic?
Is nicotine a cognitive enhancer? Yes, absolutely it is. Nicotine has cognitive enhancing effects. using nicotine quickly enhances focus, processing speeds, and working memory while reducing anxiety and improving mood. It boosts motivation and drive as well as supporting mental energy levels.
But 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 nootropic use make it a less than ideal choice for a brain supplement. 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.
Does nicotine deplete serotonin?
Nicotine can indirectly deplete serotonin. One study shows that chronic nicotine administration results in serotonin depletion in brain areas such as the hippocampal formation and reduces firing of serotonergic neurons arising in the midbrain raphe.
Does nicotine increase GABA?
Nicotine does not raise GABA levels but it does act as an agonist on GABA receptors. Acute nicotine administration increases GABA release by binding to excitatory presynaptic nACh receptors located on GABA neurons.
Does nicotine deplete dopamine?
Nicotine use can lead to chronic dopamine depletion over time. One study fund that withdrawal from nicotine produced a deficit in dopamine, while re-exposure to nicotine reversed the hypodopaminergic state.
Is nicotine good for ADHD?
Nicotine is one of the best nootropics for ADHD. One study found that Nicotine may increase attention and reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity and, thus, may regulate behavior in individuals with ADHD. Nicotine spikes dopamine and norepinephrine in much the same way as Adderall or Ritalin.
Can nicotine affect anxiety?
Nicotine has a direct and significant effect on anxiety, both positive and negative. Nicotine can cause anxiety symptoms or make them worse, while some people find that nicotine acutely lowers anxiety and may even prevent panic attacks.
Is nicotine like Ritalin?
Nicotine stimulates the release of both dopamine and norepinephrine, and as such can be said to be very similar in action to ADHD medications such as Ritalin, Adderall or Vyvanse.
Does nicotine cause brain fog?
Brain fog is just one of the many symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. It occurs because your brain is getting used to lower dopamine levels. Brain fog following nicotine use can last for 2-4 weeks after you stop smoking.
Is nicotine a good cognitive enhancer?
Nicotine is one of the best cognitive enhancers in existence. Nicotine has a range of positive nootropic effects, including improvement of fine motor functions, attention, working memory, motivation, and episodic memory.
Brian Johnson is current Editor of Vagarights.com and a long-time writer for VAGA. A former psychologist, Brian is passionate about improving mental health and finding ways to stave off cognitive decline. He is an expert on nootropics, cognitive enhancement and biohacking more broadly. You can see his work on Google scholar.