Nicotine as a Nootropic: What’s the Buzz?

Nicotine products

Despite being discovered centuries ago in 1828, nicotine might be one of the most misunderstood drugs in modern history. Ask the average person what they know about nicotine, and you’ll likely hear stern-browed remarks like “it’s highly addictive,” “causes cancer,” or “never start using it — it’ll destroy your life.”

But, I have to admit — before doing my own research, I too believed that nicotine was an unnecessarily destructive and highly-habit-forming substance.

That’s why I was especially shocked when I learned nicotine was gaining popularity as a nootropic — or cognitive enhancer. Across biohacking forums and various subreddits, nicotine proponents touted benefits such as improved focus, increased memory recall, and even elevated mood.

I was incredulous. How could nicotine, the psychoactive constituent of tobacco, have any practical applications? A lifetime of exposure to lurid anti-smoking campaigns told me it couldn’t be true — y’know, the ones that showcased horrific fetus-warping and face-melting ramifications akin to John Carpenter’s The Thing. As you might imagine, they were pretty convincing.

But as I dug deeper, I realized that — as per usual — things weren’t so black and white.

What is Nicotine, Really?


As nightshade plants, these tomatoes contain naturally-occurring nicotine  | Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

Nicotine is an alkaloid (a category of organic compounds) that’s naturally present in various plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, and of course, tobacco. In these plants, nicotine functions as a plant-based defense mechanism that actively wards off herbivores by acting as a mild poison when ingested.

However, when humans consume nicotine, the substance behaves more like a stimulant. Within minutes of smoking, vaping, chewing, or sublingual/subdermal administration, nicotine prompts the body to release several natural chemicals, including:

  • Dopamine, one of the body’s principal “feel-good” reward chemicals, which promotes a sense of well-being. It also reinforces our desire to reengage in whatever stimulus prompted its release, which is one of the reasons nicotine is addictive
  • Norepinephrine (or noradrenaline), a hormone/neurotransmitter that promotes wakefulness/alertness (and is also released upon drinking caffeine and energy drinks)
  • Epinephrine (or adrenaline),  a hormone that suppresses appetite, enhances memory storage, and also promotes wakefulness/alertness

Whether you were able to wade through all that pharmacological jargon or not, here’s the takeaway: nicotine produces a stimulating and mildly euphoric buzz. Generally, its effects are less stimulating and less intense than caffeine, and with a half-life of 1-2 hours, they’re not very long-lasting, either.

Like all psychoactive substances, nicotine has side effects, but they’re pretty tame in comparison to other stimulant-like drugs. In well-tolerated quantities, nicotine can increase heart rate and elevate blood pressure. However, pump up the dosage, and you’re more likely to encounter more unpleasant side effects like nausea, dizziness, nervousness, irritability, and aggression.

All in all, though, nicotine isn’t the “destroyer of worlds” drug that some claim it to be. I often see articles and self-help websites comparing nicotine’s addictive potential to heroin and cocaine, which frankly, is nuts. Sure, nicotine is addictive, and cessation from habitual use isn’t pleasant, but this is the case with most dopaminergic drugs (caffeine included).

So why does this plant-derived stimulant get such a bad rap? If you ask me, it’s guilt by association. Because nicotine and cigarettes are so culturally intertwined, decades of research and popular belief have falsely attributed the nastiness of the 7000 other chemicals found in cigarette smoke to nicotine. In actuality, nicotine alone isn’t carcinogenic and is far removed from the devastating consequences of cigarettes. 


Why I Decided to Check Out Nicotine

In the vast world of psychotropic substances, stimulants are usually my drug of choice. Between a full-time writing job, running a web business, writing creatively in my free time, exercising regularly, and maintaining a committed relationship, I have a lot on my plate. I’m not bragging, either — I fully admit that my workload is insane, but that’s my own doing.

Sometimes when I wake up and take a look at my to-do list, an average day can seem insurmountable. But thankfully, this is where stimulants come in.

With stimulants, a heavy workload feels that much more accomplishable. With stimulants, I know I’ll be able to get past an afternoon or evening slump. With stimulants, I have the power, goddamn it!

He-Man I Have The Power

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full episode of He-Man. Nonetheless…

There’s just one problem, though: stimulants — even caffeine — are habit-forming. Before discovering nicotine, I had already experienced the hellish withdrawals of caffeine, my stimulant of choice at the time. After months of use, my body had grown accustomed to a specific dose, and without it, I felt worse than before: tired, foggy-headed, and irritable. For me, there was no way to circumvent the truth: daily caffeine use wasn’t sustainable.

So how could I reap the advantages of stimulants without becoming dependent and suffering withdrawals from any one specific drug? After donning my rational thinking cap and stroking my mustache for a few hours, the answer seemed clear: more drugs! 

Well, sort of. The answer was different drugs. By introducing a second stimulant into my regimen and creating a stimulant rotation, I figured I’d be able to gain all the benefits of performance-enhancing substances without the nasty side effects.

As far as new stimulant candidates go, nicotine seemed to fit the bill: it was relatively cheap, accessible, and best of all, legal. Initially, I was skeptical of nicotine’s purported “nootropic” value (I had puffed a cigarette once or twice and felt nothing but unpleasant nausea and dizziness) but figured I didn’t have much to lose.


My Experience with Nicotine

tobacco plants

In terms of ingestion, nicotine is a very versatile substance. For centuries, smoking tobacco was the preferred route of administration, but a lot has changed since then. Today, thanks to industry innovation, nicotine users can consume nicotine smoke-free through vaping, sublingual, or transdermal methods, which negate the need to smoke stinky-ass cigarettes.

True to form, my introduction to nicotine was a piece of nicotine gum from a Nicorette package that my brother had left lying around. As a first-time nicotine user, I was able to feel the “buzz” within seconds of chewing, which I would describe as a sensation of increased sharpness and mental clarity. Once the gum’s flavour dissipated and the buzz subsided, I knew I was ready to take the plunge and go deeper with this alkaloidal stimulant.

But, as I began researching where to start my nicotine journey, I noticed something very strange. Nearly every nicotine-containing product I was evaluating was marketed as a cessation tool. Everywhere I looked, it seemed like everyone was trying to get off of nicotine — whereas I wanted to get on. Again, the negative cultural perceptions of nicotine were in full-force here: evident byproducts of the stigma and toxicity associated with smoking.

Nonetheless, I eventually settled on getting a vape. While the Nicorette gum seemed to work, the product is explicitly marketed as a smoking cessation tool, so purchasing some of my own didn’t seem well-advised (we’ll come back to this later).

Vaping: The Honeymoon Period

Judging by public reaction, vaping might be one of the most contentious hobbies or habits on the planet. The vitriolic hatred for vaping and vapers is especially strange to me because “vapists” are essentially replacing the odious mummy tar smoke clouds of cigarettes with a variety of scents that are much more palatable (namely, every flavour in Willy Wonka’s arsenal).

Still, while acknowledging the potential social ramifications of my actions, I started my nicotine adventure by purchasing an Aspire Breeze — a pod-based, mouth-to-lung vaping device. As a first-time buyer, the Breeze kit was a good sell: it had everything I needed to get started, including a complimentary bottle of 24mg/ml e-juice. I remember explaining that I was new to nicotine to the clerk at the store and that 24mg seemed a bit high, but he said I should be “fine.”

This turned out to be demonstrably false. While the Breeze device itself was great, I quickly realized that more than a couple puffs of 24mg/ml juice was a one-way ticket to poisonville. But, having learned my lesson, I switched out the freebie e-juice for a more suitable 2mg bottle and went merrily on my way.

Over the next year, I experimented with different vaping devices, configurations, and flavours. My experimentation seemed to be fueled by diminishing novelty: while I liked the buzz that nicotine provided, each device and e-juice flavour would gradually lose its appeal over time. At some points, I even became nauseated by the smell of certain e-juices, even if I had been previously fond of them.

About six months later, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of whiplash with vaping. The hobby had become an insatiable pursuit for the perfect configuration, reinforced by an addictive chemical. I could control every aspect of my vaping experience from device temperature to ohms and wattage — but I didn’t want to. Instead, the myriad customization options left me with a desire for something simpler.

Vaping: The Break-up

When I first saw Pax Lab’s Juul device on the store shelves, it seemed like everything I had been looking for: a rejection of the needless sophistication of other vaping devices and a staunch commitment to simplicity. Pop an e-juice pod in, take a hit, recharge when necessary.

Sure enough, after a few days of use, I fell in love with the Juul. The flavour was delicious (although I only ever opted for mint), the vapour was satisfying, and the device was easy-to-use and virtually maintenance-free. Sure, the pods were a little expensive, but a few puffs went a long way.

But, after a few months, it seemed like my honeymoon period with the Juul had regrettably ended. I wasn’t getting the same satisfaction from each hit, and my tongue had grown accustomed to the signature mint flavour. Worse yet, the device had started acting up — I had been experiencing an annoying number of leaky pods and misfires.

So, in another step towards simplicity, I figured I’d quit and drop the Juul for something else.

Nicotine Lozenges

I began my nicotine journey with a single piece of nicotine gum, so the transition to nicotine lozenges didn’t seem like a far leap. Both products are very similar and are sold by top brands like Nicorette and Thrive, but I’m not very fond of gum, so a slowly-dissolving lozenge fit the bill.

Overall, nicotine lozenges are easily my favourite nicotine product. They’re convenient, covert, and incredibly cheap compared to other routes of nicotine administration. Because they look and behave like after-dinner mints, you can consume them at any time without the fear of committing a faux pas. And, unlike a vaping device, there’s no maintenance or component-swapping required — just pop n’ go.

I’ve played around with a few different nicotine lozenge brands, but Nicorette’s mini lozenges are my go-to favourite. A box of 88 2mg lozenges costs about ~$40 CAD or about 50¢ per lozenge, and I can split the lozenges in half to boost the value and product longevity further. I use about 2 lozenges a day (sometimes more if I’m working a lot), so a box of 88 can last me about a month and a half.

The obvious downside of nicotine lozenges is that, as a diminutive dissolving candy, they don’t provide the customization options of vaping devices. But, if you’re like me and you’re mainly using nicotine for its psychoactive properties, the streamlined experience probably won’t bother you.

Should I Use Nicotine?

In small-to-moderate doses, nicotine is a pretty subtle drug, so it probably won’t be enticing to most. However, if you’re looking for something to give you an extra “edge” during work, school, or play, nicotine could be a useful addition to your psychotropic arsenal. It’s stimulating without being overbearing like caffeine, and current research supports its value as a cognitive enhancer.

That said, approach nicotine with caution: it does have addictive qualities, and using it indiscriminately could put you on the fast-track to developing temporary nicotine poisoning or an addiction.

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