Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are the most widely consumed psychotropic drugs worldwide. Of these, nicotine and caffeine compare well with each other.
Named after the tobacco plant “Nicotiana tabacum”, nicotine constitutes approximately 0.6–3.0% of dry weight of tobacco. Caffeine is present naturally in tea, coffee, cocoa beans and some herbs.
Caffeine acts as a natural pesticide in plants, where it paralyzes or kills insects that feed on the plant. Similarly, nicotine is an anti-herbivore chemical. However, in low doses in humans, both are stimulants – though a lesser concentration of nicotine rather than caffeine is required to kill you.
Both nicotine and caffeine are addictive – I am sure you have met people who must have their morning cuppa or they will be moody and cranky all day.
Pharmacological Effect on the body
Caffeine crosses the blood-brain barrier easily and combines with adenosine receptors on the surface of cells. It works to increase the number of adenosine receptors in the body, which makes users much more sensitive to adenosine. A tolerance is built up over time making it less effective as a stimulant. At the same time, if you stop taking caffeine, it leads to withdrawal symptoms.
Adenosine plays a significant role in metabolism and is necessary for RNA synthesis.
Inhaled nicotine reaches the brain within seven seconds. It causes the liver to release glucose and the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine. It also stimulates the release of various chemical messengers. This results in enhanced concentration and memory and the analgesic effect of endorphin reduces pain.
The cancer causing properties of nicotine (if any) have not been properly studied so we do not know either way. However, it does increase cholinergic activity. The exact link between cholinergic activity and cancer is unknown.
Both nicotine and caffeine are stimulants and increase heart rate, speeds up other bodily functions, and have the potential to cause overdose or be habit-forming. Both bring about temporary feelings of enhanced energy and vitality in most users. Both also improve cognitive functioning.
Nicotine attaches to acetylcholine receptors in the brain, often leading to additional effects like appetite suppression, nausea and dry mouth.
Nicotine is known to cause nausea, dizziness and lightheadedness in first-time tobacco users – these generally fade away with time. According to the New York Times, symptoms of nicotine poisoning (which would not generally happen with normal use of electronic cigarettes and other nicotine containing products) include abdominal cramps, vomiting, convulsions, agitation and changes in breathing and blood pressure.
According to the Mayo Clinic, due to its ability to induce bladder spasms, caffeine can cause urinary tract irritation in sensitive individuals. It can also magnify the effects of other stimulants like pseudoephedrine and amphetamines, increasing the risks for cardiovascular side effects like tachycardia and high blood pressure.
Both nicotine and caffeine may lead to increased cardiovascular strain and psychological side effects like irritability and anxiety.
- Both are drugs from the alkaloid family
- Both have a stimulating effect of some sort
- Both are addictive and can cause mild to severe health issues
- Caffeine mainly increases alertness while nicotine mainly causes relaxation (although increased adrenaline production by nicotine can cause hyperactivity).
Given the many similarities, it is strange that one (nicotine) is seen as a pariah (at least in the context of electronic cigarettes) and one (caffeine) is readily accepted.
People with a history of heart disease or other chronic illness should consult a doctor before consuming caffeine, and should avoid nicotine exposure altogether. Nicotine should also be avoided during pregnancy.
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Nazeer Bhamji is the owner of Uniqbuy. A small retailer of imported electronic products from the Far East specialising in ecig kits and liquid, tablet pc and computer glasses.