Is Nicotine a Stimulant or Depressant? The Science & Definitions
Erik Rosengren - Snusexpert
28 September, 2023
9 Min

Is Nicotine a Stimulant or Depressant? The Science & Definitions

Nicotine is both a stimulant and depressant, found in most tobacco-based products. It's a unique alkoloid with two Nitrogen Heterocycles. When ingested in any form, usually by burning dried tobacco leaves in cigarettes, it latches on to the Nicotinic Cholinergic Receptors in your brain.

These receptors are like gated channels that open because of the nicotine, leading to the inflow of cations (positively charged ions) like sodium and calcium. It results in the release of different neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline.

The prefrontal cortex experiences most of the activity. Since the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for visual stimuli, emotions, and thoughts, you experience a rush of emotions and relaxation. This psychoactive chemical is found in some common foods and most nicotine and tobacco products.

What Are Nicotine and Tobacco Products?

By definition, nicotine, and tobacco products are consumable items that include significant amounts of nicotine and other chemicals. This category includes, but is not limited to, products like:

  • Cigarettes or Cigars
  • Vapes and Hookahs
  • Chewing Tobacco
  • Snus or Snuff
  • Nicotine Pouches
  • E-cigarettes
  • Nicotine Gum
  • Nicotine Lozenges
  • Nicotine Patches

The earliest known forms of consumable nicotine were chewing tobacco and smoking. Nicotine is found in most foods from the tomato family; however, the content is too small to have any effects. In contrast, modern nicotine products contain, 18000 times more nicotine than natural foods. 

A pack of snus depicting one of the sorts of tobacco product containing nicotine.

How Is Tobacco Used in Various Forms?

Today, people use tobacco in different forms by chewing, placing it under their lips, or smoking it. Originally, tobacco was only consumed through chewing and smoking pipes. Later on, it evolved into snus and hookahs. Finally, cigarettes were invented in the 19th century and popularized through mass media. 

Some modern nicotine pouches are also derived from tobacco. Although, these are often used as a smoking cessation tool to quit cigarettes. Nevertheless, all of these forms contain nicotine.

How Does Nicotine Affect the Body and Mind?

Nicotine affects the body and mind in different ways by controlling the flow of neurochemicals. When it attaches to the nACHrs or Nicotinic Cholinergic Receptors, different chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline are released in your brain. This leads to various long-term and short-term effects. 

What Are the Immediate Effects of Nicotine?

Like most stimulant effects, the immediate effect of nicotine is a sense of elevation. The user experiences a rush of energy or happiness due to the release of adrenaline. Your body feels warmer, and your heartbeat increases.

For some people, these effects manifest in the form of a light sensation in their head and body. This is what most people call the “nicotine buzz.” 

What Are the Short-Term Effects of Nicotine on the Brain?

Nicotine primarily affects the pre-frontal cortex. It's the part of the brain that processes thoughts, emotions, memories, actions, and visual stimuli. Due to increased activity in this part, you might experience better memory, focus, intense emotions, and joy for a short period.

These feelings can last from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the product that you're using. 

How Does Nicotine Impact the Respiratory System in the Short Term?

Nicotine creates a rush of adrenaline, which increases your heartbeat and consequently quickens your respiratory system. You might feel shortness of breath, and that's about it. Nicotine by itself doesn't affect the respiratory system much unless you overdose on it.

However, when ingested through cigarette smoke, the other chemicals can cause irritation to the trachea and larynx, along with breathlessness and damage to the lungs. In the short term, you will feel short of breath, parched, and have excess mucus in your throat. 

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Nicotine on the Brain?

The long-term effects of nicotine on the brain vary from person to person and the type of product used. However, the most common effect is nicotine addiction and dependence. Nicotine use over long periods can mold your synapses and pre-frontal cortex in a way that reduces your focus and attention span. 

Apart from this, the addictive nature of nicotine can cause mood disorders and a loss of impulse control. The long-term effects of nicotine also vary based on the smoker or user. 

How Can Long-Term Nicotine Use Increase the Risk of Diseases?

Long-term nicotine use weakens your brain and body. The constantly elevated blood pressure and heart rate can cause damage to your veins. The constant use of nicotine products, especially cigarettes, can harden your arteries, which leads to an increased risk of heart attack and other pulmonary diseases.

The constant mucus in your throat may cause chest infections or leave you vulnerable to common colds. Nicotine is also a diet suppressant. It's one of the many reasons why smokers have weight issues and dietary deficiencies.

People who smoke tobacco consistently have thinner arteries and a lower supply of oxygen to their brains and other parts of the body. It's why cigarettes can cause gangrene, blackened lips, and other hazardous health effects. 

According to the NCBI, adolescents who smoke cigarettes and use other forms of nicotine are more prone to psychiatric disorders. A lower supply of oxygen to the brain also limits your mental capabilities and increases your chances of contracting different diseases. 

Is Nicotine a Stimulant or Depressant?

Nicotine can act as both a stimulant and a depressant. Initially, nicotine users experience feelings of pleasure. However, constant use and abuse of nicotine increases their nicotine tolerance to unreal levels.

When the brain adapts to the constantly elevated levels of nicotine, the normal levels seem like a slump. It's why long-term nicotine users have mood swings and depression without nicotine products. Such is the case with all addictions and stimulants. 

Is nicotine a stimulant or depressant

What Defines a Stimulant?

Stimulants refer to a wide category of products that affect your brain and nervous system. These products include Caffeine, Nicotine, Amphetamines, etc. Each product affects the body differently, usually increasing the feelings of pleasure, boosting mood, and central nervous system functionality. 

How Does the Central Nervous System Play a Role?

The central nervous system (CNS) is a combination of the brain and spinal cord. These two are responsible for vital actions like emotions, heart rate, movement, breathing, and body temperature.

When nicotine enters the body through tobacco smoke or any other form, the effects manifest in the CNS. For starters, nicotine releases the stimulating chemical Epinephrine. It elevates and stimulates the CNS, and reinforces the behavior over long periods, causing addiction.

What Exactly Is a Depressant?

A depressant is something that slows down your mental processes and central nervous system. It works by hindering messages between your brain and body. The immediate effect of a depressant is decreased arousal and interest.

Nicotine can act as a stimulant in some cases and a depressant in others, where it reduces anxiety. Since nicotine has both stimulant and depressant effects, getting addicted to it is much easier. 

What Are the Signs and Implications of Nicotine Addiction?

The most prominent effects of nicotine addiction include lowered focus, attention spans, weight and digestion issues, and memory problems. These effects don't seem extreme, but continued use of nicotine can exacerbate these problems and hinder your brain activity even further.

People affected by the effects of nicotine dependence will require addiction treatment. Are you addicted to nicotine?

How Can You Identify Signs of Nicotine Addiction?

Here are some common signs of nicotine addiction:

  • Mood Swings: Nicotine affects your synapses and mood. If you experience bouts of anger or irritation without nicotine, you are addicted to it. 
  • Cravings: Long-time users experience strong cravings for nicotine products during their habit hours, like lunch or early morning. 
  • Constipation or Diarrhea: Addiction rewires the way your body works. Some people experience constipation or diarrhea when they stay away from nicotine for a short while.
  • Sleep Problems: Nicotine addicts have a hard time sleeping and are often restless, weary, and low on energy. 
  • Depression: A severe consequence of nicotine abuse and dependence is depression. Due to the elevated dopamine levels, users find normal levels inadequate and depressing.

These are some common signs of addiction. Other signs include anger, frustration, anxiety, weight problems, and irritability. All of these effects are linked to the excess release of different neurochemicals, and Dopamine in particular. 

Why Is Dopamine Important in Nicotine Addiction and its Effects?

Dopamine is a reward-based neurotransmitter. It is responsible for interest, attention, satisfaction, and motivation. When you use too much nicotine over long periods of time, your brain is flooded with dopamine. 

Your reward center and sense of satisfaction adapt to these higher levels of dopamine. Consequently, other things that could make you happy, like watching a video or playing games, feel unsatisfactory. On the other hand, your brain demands the same dose of nicotine to feel happy again. 

How Does Withdrawal from Nicotine Manifest?

When you try to quit nicotine during an addiction, you experience certain kickbacks as your body returns to its normal state. These withdrawal effects manifest in your mood, diet, mental health, and physical health. The effects can last 2 to 4 weeks and usually end when the user does not experience strong cravings anymore. 

What Are Common Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal?

Some common nicotine withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Anger and Anxiety: You might feel a mix of these two emotions during the first few weeks of nicotine abstinence. 
  • Depression: Due to an elevated state of dopamine adaptation, you might feel more depressed when quitting nicotine. It's like jetlag after an exciting flight. 
  • Food Cravings: During abstinence, you might crave more food or gain more weight because the suppressant effects are wearing off.
  • Insomnia: You might feel more restless because of nicotine withdrawal. This manifests by affecting your sleep schedule and energy levels.

These effects are more intense in people who quit smoking because of the reinforced habit triggers. 

What Treatments Are Available for Nicotine Addiction?

There are countless treatments available for nicotine addiction in the form of nicotine replacement therapy and behavioral treatment. Most people substitute their nicotine products for a less harmful alternative, like snus for cigarettes and tobacco-free nicotine pouches for snus. 

E-cigarettes don't contain tobacco, so they could be use alternatives. However, we do not recommend considering them because they're just as dangerous as the alternatives. Although nicotine pouches are successful alternatives, they aren't FDA-approved.

Some FDA-approved alternatives include nicotine gum, patches, lozenges, nasal spray, and oral inhalers. 

What treatments are available for nicotine addiction

Which Medications Are Effective for Nicotine Addiction?

According to the UCSF, Chantix and Zyban are two medications for nicotine addiction. These bind to the nicotine receptors in your brain and alter the dopamine levels. Due to this, the user does not feel the withdrawal symptoms as intensely as before. 

Both of these medicines are only available on prescription and should only be used to treat serious cases of nicotine addiction. A majority of people opt for the behavioral treatments, which are more natural and cost-effective. 

How Does Behavioral Treatment Help?

Behavioral treatments help by reinforcing your behavior and habits. Sharing your experiences and gaining insight from other people in the same situation, allows you to make better choices and quit your addictions more effectively.

Medication can help you alleviate the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal but it can't steel your resolve or stop you from relapsing. By being in a support group you have a higher probability of quitting any habits that are counterproductive to your goals.

You can also enjoy aftercare by joining relapse prevention programs. On an ending note, nicotine addiction is curable, with the right steps and self-education. If you need more help, read our guide on how to stop smoking or quit nicotine products in general.

Certainly, we may also be wrong. Either way, our .com site offers a wider variety of products available to customers shopping from outsite of Europe, including a grand assortment of Swedish snus with tobacco.