Tag Archives: Nicotine

What is nicotine withdrawal: symptoms, coping, and treatment

Credit: Pixabay.

Many people swear that quitting smoking is one of the most difficult things in their lives. Although nicotine — the addictive substance found in tobacco — doesn’t produce an intense high like cocaine or heroin, it can be just as hard to quit as these dangerous illegal drugs. This is due to the strong physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that begin immediately when nicotine starts to leave the body.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are experienced differently by each person, some feeling them more heavily than others. Generally speaking, withdrawal symptoms peak after 1-3 days and gradually decrease over a period of 3-4 weeks. After this time nicotine should be completely flushed out of the body. But, even after all this time, psychological effects may still linger.

Understanding the effects of nicotine withdrawal is essential for successful smoking cessation. Being aware of the real challenges involved in quitting smoking helps people mentally prepare and seek treatment.

Before we delve into more details about the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, it’s helpful to understand why the substance is so addictive in the first place.

Your brain on nicotine

When an individual inhales tobacco smoke, nicotine — alongside thousands of chemical byproducts, many of which cause cellular damage, DNA changes, and cancer — is absorbed through the lining of the nose mouth, and lungs. From there, nicotine enters the bloodstream, eventually reaching the brain where it activates reward and pleasure circuits by boosting dopamine levels. Nicotine is also known to affect areas of the brain regulating breathing, memory, appetite, and heart rate.

The brain can quickly become addicted to this effect. A typical tobacco user smokes 20 cigarettes a day, and each cigarette offers more than a dozen nicotine hits. Over the years, the brain becomes primed for smoking by thousands of instances in which it is “rewarded” by the nicotine stimulation. This is one of the reasons why the psychological withdrawal symptoms of nicotine are so taxing — a user often associates smoking with all sorts of activities ranging from socializing with friends to waiting for the bus. For a heavy smoker, even leaving the house can be a trigger to smoke.

The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal

The itching cravings. When nicotinic receptors in the brain are suddenly deprived of nicotine, the release of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter dopamine also halts — and this is when the trouble starts, too. Only a few hours after your last smoke, you’ll notice an intense yearning for smoking — something to which the body has adapted and become tolerant to over the years. Nicotine cravings last for anything from 5 to 30 minutes and can be extremely uncomfortable, to say the least. The good news is that they eventually go away, fading and spiking in waves.

Snacking and constantly feeling hungry. The urge to eat more often and in larger quantities is a normal effect of quitting smoking. Nicotine triggers the release of glucose from the muscles and liver and alters your insulin response. In the absence of nicotine, the body experiences a drop in blood sugar, triggering an urge to consume carbs. Many turn to sweets during these sudden bouts of hunger — so you can see how easy it is to gain weight in these circumstances. It is normal for individuals who quit smoking to gain 10 pounds (4-5kg) on average during the first year of quiting smoking, with most of the gains seen in the first three smoking-free months.

Trouble sleeping. The sudden disruption of the dopamine system can lead to trouble sleeping, which can manifest itself in a spectrum of symptoms ranging from insomnia to needing more sleep during the day. According to studies, quitting smoking can disrupt rapid eye movement (REM), affecting the quality of sleep. A good idea is to perform relaxation exercises before bed and reduce your caffeine intake during the day.

Coughing. This might sound counterintuitive, but people who quit smoking tend to develop a persistent cough. This is actually a sign that your lungs and airways are healing. Our airways are lined by finger-like projections called cilia, which become flattened from smoking. When you quit, the cilia return to their normal shape and, in the process, expel deposits out of the lungs to be coughed up.

Mood swings and grumpiness. This is a tough symptom to bear not only for the would-be smokers but also for their friends and family. One of the first things you’ll notice in the first days of quitting smoking are feelings of heightened stress and irritation. Even the most trivial gestures can make you angry or trigger irrational outbursts. Unpredictable changes in mood come with the territory — they’re due to the dramatic changes in the body’s hormonal and central nervous systems. So, warn your friends you’ll not quite be yourself for the first few weeks of quitting smoking.

Fatigue. Remember, nicotine is a stimulant, so it’s normal for you to feel a lot more tired than usual. The stress and mental energy you expend when quitting smoking also add up to make you feel more tired. Generally, it takes two to four weeks for your energy levels to get back to normal. In the meantime, get some rest and exercise to improve these symptoms.

Memory problems and difficulty concentrating. Another side effect of the dysregulation of the dopamine system will be remembering recent events. You’ll also find it difficult to focus on tasks that would have otherwise been easy during the smoking life (nicotine actually enhances the ability to concentrate). Other psychological symptoms of smoking cessation include anxiety or depression, which, in extreme cases, may require medication.

Constipation. One in six smokers will experience bouts of constipation, which can last for one to two weeks. The sudden absence of cigarette smoke in the gut can alter the motility and contraction of the intestines, thereby slowing the rate at which food is digested. Constipation may also be exacerbated by the increased intake in food caused by the munchies that come with quitting. In order to reduce the risk of constipation, doctors recommend drinking plenty of water and including more fiber in your diet.

Timeline of nicotine withdrawal

Here’s what you can expect from the moment you extinguish your last (and, hopefully, final) cigarette:

  • 30 minutes to 4 hours: The effects from the nicotine will wear off and you’ll start to crave another cigarette. The heart rate drops and returns to normal. Blood pressure begins to drop, and circulation may start to improve.
  • 10 hours: Feelings of restlessness and cravings for a cigarette will start to fill your mind. You might also feel unusually sad. On the flipside, the body has already cleansed itself from all that excess carbon monoxide, increasing the oxygen levels in the blood.
  • 24 hours: Irritability kicks in and your appetite increases. In as little as one day after quitting smoking, a person’s blood pressure begins to drop, decreasing the risk of heart disease from smoking-induced high blood pressure. Exercising and physical activity, in general, becomes a lot easier.
  • 2 days: Headaches become common and intense as nicotine is flushed out of the system. You’ll also notice an improved sense of smell and taste as nerve endings responsible for these senses that were destroyed by smoking are now regenerating.
  • 3 days: Most of the nicotine in your body should be gone. This is the hardest day for quitting smoking because this is when both physical and psychological nicotine withdrawal symptoms are at their worst. The good news is that cravings start to taper off.
  • 2 to 4 weeks: You’ll still feel fatigued but at least some of the brain fog will be clearing up. Symptoms of coughing, depression, and anxiety improve. Generally, after one month, lung function begins to improve so you may notice a heightened ability for cardiovascular activities, such as running.
  • 1 to 3 months. Blood circulation continues to improve as there is no stimulant to raise blood pressure and potentially form clots. If you made this far, congratulations are in order! You’ve crossed the dangerous point in time where most people rebound.
  • 9 months. The lungs have now significantly healed themselves. As clia cells recover, the body is now able to push more mucus out of the lungs and better fight infections. You should notice a decrease in the frequency of lung infections.
  • 1 year. Your risk of coronary heart disease has now decreased by half compared to your days as a smoker.
  • 5 years. Arteries and blood vessels begin to widen. This means that blood is less likely to clot, lowering the risk of a stroke. As the body heals more and more, the risk of stroke will continue to reduce over the next 10 years.
  • 10 years. The risk of developing cancer is roughly cut in half compared to a smoker. In particular, the risk of developing mouth, throat, or pancreatic cancer is significantly reduced.
  • 15 years. The likelihood of developing coronary heart disease and pancreatic cancer is equivalent to a non-smoker.
  • 20 years. The risk of dying from smoking-relating causes (i.e. lung disease and cancer) drops to the level of a person who never smoked in their life.

Treatments for nicotine withdrawal

Quitting cold turkey will make nicotine withdrawal symptoms harsher than those who seek counseling and smoking cessation aids. In order to avoid relapsing, it’s a good idea to try treatments such as nicotine replacements. These are products that deliver doses of nicotine to the body without the harmful byproducts of tobacco smoke. These include chewing gum, skin patches, inhalators, tablets, and nasal or mouth sprays. E-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine as vapor, can also be a good alternative to smoking. However, the health risks of e-cigs are still understudied.

Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can reduce the chance of relapsing by up to 60%. The idea is to gradually reduce the nicotine dosage until a person is ready to stop permanently. However, people may experience side effects when using NRT, such as nausea, dizziness, insomnia, and headaches.

There are also medications that reduce cravings for smoking, such as varenicline (known as Chantix) and bupropion (known under the brand name Zyban).

Lastly, people shouldn’t be afraid to try counseling alongside NRT, in order to address the difficult psychological withdrawal symptoms.

Bottom line: Quitting smoking is highly challenging but the effort is well worth it. If there’s only one lifestyle choice you can make in order to dramatically improve your health and vitality, choose to quit smoking.

Nicotine fluorescent.

Nicotine works inside our neurons to reinforce addiction

New research is looking into how nicotine works on a cellular level.

Nicotine fluorescent.

A biosensor targeted at a cell’s endoplasmic reticulum glows green in the presence of nicotine
Image credits Caltech / Lester laboratory.

Smoking tobacco makes you feel good because it floods the brain with nicotine. This nicotine latches onto specific receptors on the surface of neurons, producing feelings of happiness.

However, that’s not the whole story — only what we knew so far. To find out what happens after nicotine enters the cells, a  team of researchers at the California Institute of Technology has developed a protein sensor that glows in the presence of nicotine, allowing them to follow its movements inside cells and reveal more about the nature of nicotine addiction.

Inside job

The research was led by Henry Lester, Professor of Biology at Caltech. He has previously found that some nicotinic receptors (nAChRs) enter neurons and make a beeline for the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Think of the ER as the cell’s protein assembly line. It synthesizes and packages proteins in order to be shipped to various other locations both inside and outside of the cell. Nicotinic receptors (nAChRs) are among these proteins.

After being synthesized in the ER, nicotinic receptors relocate to the cell’s surface. When nicotine molecules enter the body, they travel through the bloodstream and reach these nAChRs on the surface of neurons. Their merger triggers a chemical release as a reward — which we feel as happiness or pleasure. However, some of these nAChRs remain in the ER, inside the cell. In a way, they’re kept ‘in storage’ until they are needed.

In a bid to understand what nicotine does inside cells, Lester’s team developed a biosensor to allow them to track the substance inside cells. The biosensor is, in essence, a protein that can fold into an open or closed state, and an inactivated fluorescent protein. The first protein closing activates this fluorescent part, making it glow brightly. Because the first protein closes around nicotine, this biosensor allows the team to easily track where nicotine molecules pool up and how many of them are present in a given cell.

The team placed their biosensors on the endoplasmic reticulum and the surfaces of “mouse hippocampal neurons and human stem cell-derived dopaminergic neurons” among other types of cells in the lab, and then filmed the results. They report that nicotine entered into the endoplasmic reticulum within a few seconds of it reaching a cell’s surface. Nicotine levels observed inside the cells were also more than enough to affect nAChRs during their synthesis or as they were in transit towards the cellular membrane.

This last tidbit makes neurons more sensitive to the effects of nicotine, the team explains, enhancing the pleasure derived from a cigarette or an e-cigarette. It makes a person get a buzz more quickly and easily the more they smoke, the team adds. This is likely a key mechanism underpinning part of nicotine addiction.

The team’s efforts focused on isolated neurons in a lab setting. They plan to expand on their findings in the future, to determine whether nicotine behaves the same way in the neurons of live mice. They also plan to develop similar biosensors for other compounds, especially for opioids and antidepressants.

The paper “Determining the Pharmacokinetics of Nicotinic Drugs in the Endoplasmic Reticulum Using Biosensors” has been published in The Journal of General Physiology.

No Smoking.

Lab-tailored enzyme shows promise as a new and powerful treatment against tobacco addiction

New research from the Scripps Institute may pave the way to more efficient — and more enjoyable — ways of weaning off of nicotine.

No Smoking.

Image via Pixabay.

Nicotine addiction is an immensely powerful force, one that makes smokers keep smoking despite the habit’s well-documented impact on health. It’s what gets people hooked, and what makes most of those who gave up smoking relapse. Current estimations point to 60% of those who try cigarettes ending up as daily smokers, about 75% of daily smokers relapsing after quitting. However, one new, lab-tailored enzyme could help us fight against nicotine addiction by breaking most of it down before reaching the brain.

The compound was, thus far, shown to be efficient in rat models.

Nic-No-Tine

“This is a very exciting approach because it can reduce nicotine dependence without inducing cravings and other severe withdrawal symptoms, and it works in the bloodstream, not the brain, so its side effects should be minimal,” says principal investigator Olivier George, Ph.D., associate professor at Scripps Research.

The enzyme the team tested is known as NicA2-J1, and it’s a variation of a natural compound produced by Pseudomonas putida — which, interestingly, is the first patented organism in the world. This compound has previously been shown to reduce nicotine levels in the blood of mice.

And there lies the crux of the researchers’ interest in the enzyme. It breaks down nicotine before it even reaches the brain, making it very attractive as a means of fighting nicotine dependence. However, the original enzyme didn’t scrub nicotine fast enough for such a treatment strategy to work. So George’s team started by tweaking the enzyme to make it more efficient, increase its staying time in the bloodstream, and add a few other pharmacological properties.

The next step was to treat nicotine-dependent rats with the tweaked enzyme. For the first stage of the experiments, rats spent 21 hours per day, for 12 days, in a chamber where they could press a lever to receive a shot of nicotine. The rats soon understood the system, and self-administered nicotine until they became addicted to the substance. After these 12 days, the rats were only allowed access to nicotine once every 48 hours.

The rats experienced obvious withdrawal symptoms between these windows of time. They started escalating their intake while nicotine was available — a hallmark of deepening addiction — in a psychological bid to reduce discomfort caused by withdrawal.

However, not all rats fared the same. Those treated with the highest doses of NicA2-J1 (10 mg/kg) continued to pull the lever for a shot of nicotine if given the chance, but had significantly lower blood-nicotine levels compared to the rest of the animals. They also exhibited less pronounced signs of nicotine withdrawal, such as such as susceptibility to pain and aggressiveness, compared to the control group. One of the most encouraging finds is that NicA2-J1 treatment didn’t instantly trigger withdrawal symptoms, which usually happens when nicotine is blocked in a highly-dependent animal — think of quitting ‘cold-turkey’, but much more abruptly.

“It’s as if they were smoking 20 cigarettes but receiving the nicotine dose of only one or two, so that made their withdrawal process much less severe,” says study first author Marsida Kallupi.

“[W]hat’s unique about this enzyme is that it removes enough nicotine to reduce the level of dependence, but leaves enough to keep the animals from going into severe withdrawal,” George adds.

One of the most insidious effects of nicotine dependence is the continuation of use despite its adverse consequences — short-term impairment of lung function and physical fitness, alongside the longer-term risks of cancers, heart disease, or stroke. In other words, the compound is so addictive that users are compelled to seek it out no matter the cost. NicA2-J1 could also help in this regard, the team writes. When each lever-press had a 30% chance of directing an electric shock to the rats’ feet, those treated with NicA2-J1 quickly reduced their lever presses; those in the control group did not.

To model how effective the enzyme would be at fighting relapses, the team took the rats off of nicotine for 10 days straight — any smoker here will shiver at the mere thought (yes, nicotine addiction is that bad). The team gave each rat an injection of nicotine after the 10 days to restart their desire for the drug, and then restored their access to the lever. Untreated rats responded in a rather predictable way: they pressed the lever as much as they could, as fast as they could. Rats treated with NicA2-J1, in contrast, used the lever more sparingly. The same effect was seen when the team triggered relapse in all the rats using a stress-inducing compound (which was meant to mimic the way stress can cause relapse in humans).

 

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Nicotine Addiction” footer=””]Nicotine is an extremely hard habit to kick as it fosters both physical and psychological dependence, and users develop tolerance over time. It’s an extremely addictive compound, similar to heroin and cocaine. Discontinuation of use (after dependence sets in) is particularly nasty, involving both affective (mood-related) and somatic (body-related) withdrawal symptoms, ranging from anxiety and poor mood to tremors. Withdrawal effects peak in the first few days of discontinuation but can last for upwards of several weeks. Most people don’t make it past the first few days.

“The majority of smokers would like to stop smoking, and each year about half try to quit permanently. Yet, only about 6 percent of smokers are able to quit in a given year,” reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).[/panel]

Since nicotine is extremely addictive, it’s hard to give up; even worse, those that do manage this feat are very prone to relapse. That, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; as the team notes in the paper’s opening line, however, “[t]obacco use disorder is the leading cause of disease and preventable death worldwide” (which is very bad). The CDC also supports this statement. NicA2-J1 shows a lot of promise as a treatment to help smokers wean off of nicotine since it prevents the substance from reaching the brain in the first place, takes the edge off of withdrawal, and makes relapses less likely to happen. The team hopes to start clinical trials with human subjects soon — but first, they’ll work on making the enzyme even more effective.

The paper “An enzymatic approach reverses nicotine dependence, decreases compulsive-like intake, and prevents relapse” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Nicotine.

Newly-devised molecule might help people quit smoking by blocking nicotine break-down

Drugs that can actually help to quit smoking may soon find their way to a pharmacy near you.

Nicotine.

Image credits Lydia / Flickr.

Researchers from the Washington State University (WSU) have synthesized over a dozen compounds that can help smokers curb their dependence on nicotine, a new paper reports. The compounds work by slowing down the rate at which nicotine is broken down in the body, which should help people reduce their consumption of tobacco — or kick the habit altogether.

Breaking down the breaker-downs

Nicotine, like most other drugs, triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain — two chemicals that make us feel good. However, from the body’s point of view, nicotine isn’t very nice, so it has to go. Our liver produces an enzyme — dubbed CYP2A6 — to break the compound down (or ‘metabolize’ it). This process, however, can have nasty side-effects. Patients who have developed a dependence on nicotine can experience withdrawal symptoms ranging from anxiety and irritability to tingling in their extremities as the substance is flushed out of their system.

The process of metabolization, coupled with our bodies’ tendency to develop tolerance to active substances such as nicotine, means that users tend to increase intake of substances such as nicotine over time.

However, the process of metabolization could also help us kick the habit altogether. In the mid-90s, researchers found that people who had fewer copies of the gene that encodes the CYP2A6 enzyme tend to smoke less and are less likely to become addicted to smoking. In a bid to artificially-induce these traits into people with normal levels of CYP2A6, the team designed dozens of molecules that can bind to the enzyme and limit its ability to process nicotine.

This is the feeling that the researchers are targeting, said Travis Denton, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences, lead author and a former tobacco chewer who has been working on solutions to nicotine dependence for 15 years.

“I quit cold turkey and I know how hard it is. Would this have helped? I believe so, because again, the people who want to quit, really want to quit,” says lead author Travis Denton, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the WSU.

“They just can’t because it’s too doggone hard. Imagine if you could take this pill and your jitters don’t come on as fast — it’s just super reinforcing to help you quit.”

Co-author Philip Lazarus, Boeing distinguished professor of pharmaceutical sciences, says that inhibiting CYP2A6 shouldn’t have any effect on your overall health.

“If we could specifically target this enzyme, people should be fine, and it will possibly help them stop smoking or at least decrease their amount of smoking.”

So far, the team has been able to test the substances and make sure they don’t interfere with other major enzymes in the body — 18 of their molecules passed the test. The next step is for the Food and Drug Administration to approve clinical trials of the compounds, to see exactly what effect each of these compounds would have on the human body.

Molecules smoking.

Some of the 18 molecules the team developed and tested and their interaction with CYP2A6.
Image credits Travis T. Denton et al., 2018, JoMC.

Should even one of these molecules prove effective, it could bring significant benefits to public health. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, causing an estimated 6 million deaths per year. Cigarette smoking causes nearly one in every five deaths in the United States.

The paper “Identification of the 4-Position of 3-Alkynyl and 3-Heteroaromatic Substituted Pyridine Methanamines as a Key Modification Site Eliciting Increased Potency and Enhanced Selectivity for Cytochrome P-450 2A6 Inhibition” has been published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

Credit: Pixabay.

Exercising improves nicotine withdrawal symptoms, helps to quit smoking

For many smokers, quitting the habit can be one of the hardest things they’ve done or attempted to in their lives. There are some things people can do to transit to a smoking-free lifestyle, such as using nicotine patches or vaping. The problem is you’re not getting rid of nicotine this way, a highly addictive substance. What might work better is physical exercise, a new study suggests.

According to British researchers at St George’s University of London, exercising activates many brain receptors share by nicotine. In other words, exercising gives off a similar buzz to smoking. This could mean that people trying to stop smoking could reduce the severity of nicotine withdrawal by working out more.

The researchers found that even moderate intensity exercise activates a type of receptor in the brain called α7 nicotinic acetylcholine — a target of nicotine.

The study was carried out on nicotine-treated mice who had to perform 2 or 24 hours a day of wheel running exercise. The rodents’ nicotine withdrawal symptoms were then compared to a sedentary control group.

Previously, other studies showed that running groups could help smokers quit the habit. Another 2012 study found that people who exercise are 55 percent more likely to quit—and 43 percent less likely to relapse into smoking, too. These studies found that people should exercise at least 30 minutes per day to reduce their nicotine cravings.

“The evidence suggests that exercise decreases nicotine withdrawal symptoms in humans; however, the mechanisms mediating this effect are unclear,” said Dr Alexis Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Neuropharmacology, at St George’s, University of London, in a statement.

“Our research has shed light on how the protective effect of exercise against nicotine dependence actually works.”

Findings appeared the British Journal of Pharmacology.

smoking nicotine

Smokers who were lied that their cigarettes had zero nicotine also had their brains tricked

smoking nicotine

Credit: Pixabay

Researchers from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas have come across an interesting quirk of the mind. They rounded up a bunch of smokers and told some of them that the cigarettes they were holding lack any trace of nicotine. This was a lie, these were normal cigarettes. Oddly enough, the smokers didn’t satisfy their nicotine craving like they normally would have, which raises some interesting speculations about the nature of so-called physical addiction and its relation to the psyche, particularly the power of suggestion.

Substance craving depends on belief, the study finds

The team enlisted only nicotine addicts for their study. Over the course of four visits, each participant was twice given a nicotine cigarette and twice a placebo. Half the time they would visit the researchers, the participants were lied to. More plainly, the four conditions were:

  • Believes the cigarette contains nicotine but receives placebo.
  • Believes the cigarette does not contain nicotine but receives a nicotine cigarette.
  • Believes the cigarette contains nicotine and receives nicotine.
  • Believes the cigarette does not contain nicotine and receives placebo.

After having the smoke, participants were asked to complete a learning task while their brain was scanned with an fMRI. Specifically, the researchers were interested in tracking activity in the insula cortex, which is involved in a wide range of brain functions like bodily perception and self-awareness. The insula cortex is, however, also were drug cravings and addiction manifest themselves.

The participants were also asked to self-report the level of nicotine craving before smoking and after completing the task.

 Smokers showed significant ventral anterior insula activation and post-smoking craving only when they were told “nicotine in cigarette” and smoked nicotine but not in other conditions. Credit: Frontiers of Psychiatry.

Smokers showed significant ventral anterior insula activation and post-smoking craving only when they were told “nicotine in cigarette” and smoked nicotine but not in other conditions. Credit: Frontiers of Psychiatry.

Findings suggest that those participants who smoked a nicotine cigarette and were convinced they had the ‘real deal’ displayed both craving and learning signals. Smoking nicotine, but believing it was fake, did not deliver the same results, though.

It is worth noting that belief selectively modulated subjective craving and insula activation, but not learning-related behavior

“These results suggest that for drugs to have an effect on a person, he or she needs to believe that the drug is present,” said Dr. Xiaosi Gu, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the study‘s lead author.

“We show that in deprived smokers, belief about nicotine modulates subjective craving and activity in neural structures that process interoceptive information such as the insular cortex. These results provide compelling evidence supporting a strong influence of beliefs to counter drug effects on craving and addiction, as well as insights into the mechanisms of cognitive treatments for addiction,” the team wrote.

Sugar addiction could be treated with the same drugs we use for nicotine addiction

The same drugs used to combat tobacco addition could be successful in fighting sugar addiction, reports a new study.

Image credits flickr user david pacey

Obesity rates are rising worldwide, and one of the main culprits behind it is sugar. Sweets hold a huge amount of energy that our bodies can harness pretty easily; think of sugar as high-octane fuel for the body. Our brains just love sugar in all its forms, this being one of the main reason why sweets taste so good — so you’ll have an incentive to seek out foods high in sugar and nom on them. And that works well in the wild, where sources of sugar are pretty rare. But in our modern society, it becomes as easy as going to the fridge.

“Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain,” said Professor Bartlett, who is based at the Translational Research Institute. “The latest World Health Organisation figures tell us 1.9 billion people worldwide are overweight, with 600 million considered obese.”

People frequently overindulge, sometimes to the point of developing sugar addictions. There has been a lot of interest in the pharmaceutical industry in finding treatments that can combat this effect, with little results up to now. But, a world-first study led by QUT might change that.

Neuroscientist Professor Selena Bartlett from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation said their findings show that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could be used to treat sugar addiction in animals.

“[Chronic sugar intake] has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine. After long-term consumption, this leads to the opposite, a reduction in dopamine levels. This leads to higher consumption of sugar to get the same level of reward.”

“Our study found that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs like varenicline, a prescription medication trading as Champix which treats nicotine addiction, can work the same way when it comes to sugar cravings.”

Another paper by the same team was published at the same time, which shows how prolonged chronic sugar intake can lead to eating disorders and adverse effects on behavior.

“We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation.

PhD researcher Masroor Shariff said the study also put artificial sweeteners under the spotlight.

“Interestingly, our study also found that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin could produce effects similar to those we obtained with table sugar, highlighting the importance of reevaluating our relationship with sweetened food per se,” said Mr Shariff.

Professor Bartlett said varenicline acted as a neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator (or nAChR) and similar results were observed with other such drugs including mecamylamine and cytisine.

“Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them,” she said.

“Further studies are required but our results do suggest that current FDA-approved nAChR drugs may represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic.”

The full paper, titled “Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Modulators Reduce Sugar Intake” has been published online in the journal PLOS ONE and can be read here.

Nicotine patches help you quit smoking, even without counseling

The Ontario Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) mailed free nicotine patches to smokers to see if they really help you quit without any behavioral support. And for one in four of participants who kept to the treatment, it did.

Image via psypost

Smoking makes you look cool, everyone knows that. That’s why smoking is in movies and in TV shows. Smoking is in magazines and there’s even a couple of songs about it. Smoking, also, is one of the leading causes of preventable disease (and death) in the world.

So you know, that’s a lot to weigh against just looking cool.

But the real hook in smoking is that it’s addictive. More specifically nicotine is really, really addictive. In a recent CAMH Monitor survey, 13 percent of Ontario adults have reported to smoking daily. Looking for ways to bring that number down, CAMH researchers wanted to know if nicotine patches, by themselves, really do help people quit smoking.

“It’s relevant to study if nicotine replacement therapy without counselling works, because there are many people who purchase nicotine patches over-the-counter and attempt to quit without any support,” notes Dr. John Cunningham, CAMH Senior Scientist in Social and Epidemiological Research, and co-authors in their study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Previous clinical studies found that the patches, used in conjunction with behavioral supports, have an enormous impact in helping smokers break the habit. However, as is the case of the vast majority of users, who buy these patches over the counter and receive no support, nicotine replacement therapy doesn’t seem to impact quit rates.

So does self-medicating with patches work? To find out, CAMH recruited 999 ten-cigarettes-a-day smokers from across Canada by random-digit dialing. Five hundred of them were put in the test group and were mailed a five week supply of nicotine patches. The other 499 participants formed the control group and received neither patches nor counseling. After six months time, researchers came back to see it participants had been tobacco-free for the last 30 days.

“Among those who received patches, almost eight per cent reported being abstinent, compared with three per cent who had no intervention,” says Dr. Cunningham.

The five percent difference doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that not all participants used the patches they received. Only 58 percent reported to applying them, and even among them not all followed the full course of treatment.

Overall, only 46 people (19 percent) used the full supply, meaning the patches worked for about one in four participants. Not bad.

The researchers also asked participants for saliva samples to measure for continine (a tabacco by-product) content to validate the reported results. Due to evaporation during transit (they were sent by mail) only half of the samples were usable.  Despite this, the trend towards abstinence was also higher in the patch-group than those who received no treatment.

While this study does not directly reflect these mass distribution initiatives, because study participants were recruited randomly and were not necessarily seeking help, the authors note that, “the results of the trial provide general support for direct-to-smoker programs with free mailed nicotine patches.”

Although nicotine replacement therapy is much more successful that the patches alone, if you’re struggling to quit smoking they could provide the extra push you need to stay tobacco-free. Many jurisdictions offer free nicotine patches and counseling to people who call a toll-free number, including the STOP program in Ontario.