Whenever you feel good after doing something difficult, like winning a tournament or completing a painting, you release neurotransmitters called dopamine. It is the natural reward system of the human body and one of the primary components of addiction.
Nicotine is a catalyst that releases dopamine in the system, and while nicotine itself does not cause harm, it is the reason smokers continue to ingest the hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals found in cigarette smoke.
In today’s post, we’ll discuss whether a smoker’s nicotine addiction is due to the continuous stream of dopamine in their system and how to use this information to help motivated smokers to stop smoking.
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What is Dopamine?
First, let’s learn more about dopamine.
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger in the brain that transmits signals between nerve cells, or neurons. It plays a crucial role in various physiological processes, including movement, motivation, reward, and pleasure.
As part of the brain’s reward system, dopamine heavily reinforces certain behaviours and gives an incentive to repeat them.
When released, dopamine creates feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, such as whenever you learn something new, win a prize or raffle, or puff a cigarette.
How Smoking Releases Dopamine
There’s a reason why smokers light up a ciggie after a stressful day at work or when anxious.
After a hit, nicotine is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and reaches the brain and binds with a specific brain receptor. This binding triggers the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, associating every nicotine hit with pleasure and reward.
Over time, the repeated pairing of smoking as a relief from stress or when celebrating during birthdays, nights out, or parties will completely hijack your brain’s reward system, as every nicotine hit elevates the experience with the release of dopamine.
The pairing also makes environmental cues associated with smoking, such as the sight of a cigarette or being in a specific location, trigger dopamine even before nicotine is even present in the body.
Can You Get Addicted to Dopamine?
While it’s one of the primary factors that cause addiction, dopamine isn’t addictive by itself.
When someone engages in smoking or consumes other addictive substances, such as drugs, the activity or substance stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway.
As mentioned, with repeated exposure to smoking or drug abuse, the brain associates them with dopamine production. And over time, the brain adapts and produces less dopamine with every hit, increasing a smoker’s nicotine consumption.
How Weaning Away from Nicotine Improves Dopamine Levels
When you wean away from nicotine, you can restore your dopamine levels easily. But quitting smoking cold turkey, while possible, is similar to the feeling of turning a light on after spending a long time inside a dark room.
When you reduce your nicotine consumption or stop it entirely, you give your body’s reward system a chance to normalise and regain its sensitivity.
A drastic transition doesn’t always work for everyone, which is why smokers are encouraged to use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products to cushion the severe nicotine withdrawals afterwards.
As you continue to sever your ties with nicotine, other pleasurable activities like running, spending time with friends, or creative ventures become more rewarding after your dopamine levels stabilise.
It can even reach a point when you forget about cigarettes altogether the more you keep at it.
Other Things That Could Cause Addiction
Aside from smoking, there are other activities that could hijack your body’s reward system and cause substantial dopamine release at first, then dwindle down later.
If you’re going through a smoking cessation programme, it pays to be mindful of the addictive effects of the following activities and avoid exchanging one addiction for another.
Video games are designed to create engaging and rewarding experiences, which releases dopamine and potentially contribute to addictive behaviours.
Engaging in a captivating virtual world can trigger a sense of excitement, adventure, and stimulation, with its relieving effects leading to excessive gaming and addictive behaviours.
Certain foods, particularly those high in sugar, fat, and salt, can activate the brain’s reward system, leading to the release of dopamine. This activation of the reward system produces feelings of pleasure and reinforces the consumption of these foods.
Over time, you may develop tolerance as the brain adapts to stimuli, requiring larger quantities of food or highly palatable flavours to achieve the same level of pleasure.
The instant gratification and constant availability of content on social media, can lead to a compulsive desire to seek and consume more information or engage in online interactions.
Furthermore, tailored content creates an addictive personalised online experience that reinforces engagement and increases the likelihood of addictive behaviour.
Productive Ways to Stabilise Dopamine Levels
Now that we’ve established the relationship between smoking and dopamine, there are various ways to stabilise it safely.
First, regular exercise is a great stimulus for any motivated smoker, releasing endorphins and dopamine that encourage you to keep levelling up in weightlifting, running, and other physical activities.
Next, having enough sleep reduces the concentration of many neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly the high volume of dopamine that encourages addictive behaviour.
Lastly, calming music and sunlight exposure also help regulate your dopamine levels. Bright environments release dopamine naturally in our system, while calming music makes it easy to focus and be productive.
How to Quit Smoking and Regulate Your Dopamine
While meditation, self-awareness, and conscious avoidance of all stimuli that greatly release dopamine and encourage addictive behaviour, such as smoking, always helps, it pays to see professionals and use the right tools to help you quit smoking entirely.
See a GP for Help
GPs take all your needs into consideration to help you during the strongest of withdrawals and temptations and create a customised smoking cessation programme designed with your needs in mind.
They can also prescribe the best tools to increase your chances of quitting successfully.
Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)
NRT products are gums, lozenges, and patches that introduce a small nicotine dose to wean you off nicotine to fight off strong cravings and cushion the impact of withdrawals to improve your chances of quitting.
Nicotine Vaping Products (NVPs) from Pharmacies
NRT products are the first-line tools for motivated smokers trying to quit, but it doesn’t work for everyone. GPs can then prescribe NVPs sold in pharmacies through a prescription.
NVP products sold in pharmacies are made under stringent pharmaceutical standards on the manufacturing process and ingredients, are toxicologically assessed for inhalation, are locally insured, and are specifically designed to help you stop smoking.
These may be second-line tools, but the latest Cochrane Review found high-certainty evidence that NVPs are more effective than NRT in helping people stop smoking.
Smoking and dopamine are related in that the chemical is a huge contributor to many addictive behaviours. However, it isn’t inherently dangerous if it isn’t hijacked by nicotine and other addictive substances.
Better yet, dopamine is a great habit reinforcer when released after you exercise, meditate, and enjoy time with your friend and family in a smokefree environment.
You’re probably reading this because you feel you’re addicted to nicotine and dopamine release. We hope you found this information useful. If you’re struggling with quitting smoking for good, you’re in the right place to get started.
Smokefree Clinic gives you access to many medically reviewed and trustworthy resources that can inform and aid you in your path to wellness, so have a look around!
If you’re ready to get started, Smokefree can connect you to bulk-billing Australian healthcare professionals who excel in helping patients quit smoking for good, including using responsible vaping products where appropriate.
Click here to book your bulk-billed telehealth consultation with an Australian healthcare professional and quit smoking today.