Rodent experiments conducted by a team of American and Brazilian researchers indicate that the nicotine in cigarettes and other tobacco products triggers changes in brain function that substantially increase the odds that any given drinker will develop alcoholism. The link between cigarette use and alcohol use is well-known to researchers, doctors, addiction specialists and public health officials. However, the nature of this link has not been fully determined. In a study published in April 2015 in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute and Brazil’s University of Estadual Paulista used rat experiments to help explain nicotine’s impact on alcohol use. These researchers concluded that nicotine exposure produces changes in the brain that substantially speed up the transition from risky alcohol use to diagnosable alcoholism (i.e., alcohol dependence).
Nicotine is found in cigarettes and all other tobacco products, including pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, snuff and snus. It is also the active ingredient in electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Whatever its delivery device, nicotine produces a range of short-term body and mind effects that include appetite suppression, a spike in heart rate, a spike in blood pressure, increased alertness and mood elevation or euphoria. As with all other addictive substances, the euphoria associated with nicotine consumption can lead to a pattern of repeated use that produces lasting chemical change in the pleasure center, a brain area responsible for triggering rewarding sensations. In turn, this chemical change can set the stage for a physical reliance on nicotine that more or less directly equates with nicotine addiction. Nicotine addiction is a relatively rapidly developing condition. In fact, a teenager who smokes commonly experiences the opening stages of this form of addiction by the time he or she consumes no more than 100 cigarettes. This fact helps explain the high rate of nicotine addiction among adult smokers. People who attempt to quit smoking after becoming addicted typically face highly uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms such as a depressed or anxious mental state, a strong urge to return to smoking, sleep disruptions, weight gain, a loss of mental focus and headaches.
Alcohol and Smoking
Alcohol use and smoking are highly interconnected forms of substance use in the U.S. and many other countries. Unfortunately, the link between the two activities extends into the realm of diagnosable substance problems. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that Americans affected by alcoholism (one of two parts of a condition called alcohol use disorder) consume cigarettes roughly 200 percent more often than the average adult. Conversely, smokers and other people addicted to nicotine develop alcoholism roughly 300 percent more often than the average adult. Compulsive use of nicotine can seriously damage the health of people receiving treatment for alcohol use disorder. In fact, the cigarette-related rate of death in people with alcohol dependence is higher than the alcohol-related rate of death.
Nicotine and Alcoholism Risks
In the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers used laboratory experiments on rats to help determine if nicotine produces changes in brain function that alter the odds that alcohol dependence will occur. In the first experiment, a group of rats developed alcoholism after the researchers gave them open access to alcohol vapor. In the second experiment, another group of rats received open access to alcohol vapor in combination with nicotine injections. It took the first group of rats approximately 60 days to become dependent on alcohol after receiving access to alcohol vapor. Eventually, these animals regularly consumed enough alcohol to produce blood-alcohol levels almost 200 percent higher than the levels used to quantify legal drunkenness in humans. The researchers found that the group of nicotine-exposed rats developed alcoholism much more rapidly than the group of animals not exposed to nicotine. After just 21 days, these rats reached the same high drinking level as their counterparts that only consumed alcohol. The researchers note that nicotine exposure in the brains of alcohol-consuming rats significantly altered the reward-related pathways in the pleasure center, as well as the pathways responsible for activating the body’s stress response. They believe that these alterations may help explain the relatively rapid development of alcoholism associated with nicotine consumption. In essence, nicotine may promote alcohol addiction in humans by increasing pleasure center activity and increasing the likelihood that a person will drink in response to stressful feelings.