Smoking

Another self-prescribed stress intervention drug is nicotine, and here we are dealing with one of the most powerful and’ most puzzling drugs known to man. It is puzzling because it has a curious dual action. To understand the seductive nature of nicotine as an addictive drug you have to understand a little about the relationship between the automatic (autonomic) side of the nervous system and the conscious self, for whether or not we feel up or down, tense or relaxed, depends on this relationship. We have seen in the 10-day programme that there is a direct link between this ‘feeling’ part of the brain and the relaxation response. We have also learned that it is possible to influence the functioning of the autonomic nervous system (that controls heart rate, blood pressure, and so on) by means of directing the central nervous system (our brain) to feel relaxed and at peace (mainly by muscle relaxation and breath control).

Nicotine is unlike almost any other drug in that it has the facility of a dual action, taking place mostly at the various ‘junction boxes’ (synapses) that occur up and down the autonomic nervous system. In certain concentrations in the blood it helps in the transmission of impulses across these junction boxes, and so for instance increases the heart rate; at other concentrations it depresses the transmission and the heart rate falls. But together with this action there is another rather more interesting effect of nicotine – it is a powerful stimulator of brain activity. In excessive doses it can even produce the ultimate in stimulation of general brain activity and excitement in the taker – it can produce convulsions.

An example of this action in miniature is the sickness often experienced by the novice smoker, due to the stimulation of the part of brain concerned in vomiting. More sophisticated smokers will be aware of another stimulant effect of nicotine on the brain: heavy cigarette smoking tends to delay the production of urine and thus delays the rate of filling of the bladder. It does this by causing excessive production of a urine-diminishing hormone by stimulating the relevant part of the brain.

To understand the chemical lure of smoking it is also necessary to explore the way in which we self-administer nicotine. When doctors want a very prompt and dramatic action of a drug they pump it directly into the bloodstream; drug addicts involved with narcotics do the same as they mainline their heroin. Another extra-quick way to dose the body with a drug is to mainline it into the veins of the lung – where the drug in vapour form is only a cell’s membrane away from the circulation. (This method of fast drug delivery is effectively used by doctors in the administration of many substances by aerosol.) The smoker thus mainlines his highly potent nicotine into his bloodstream, repeatedly puff by puff, maintaining a suitable concentration of the drug exactly where he needs it – in the ‘feeling’ part of his brain – thus producing the necessary ‘high’ he has conditioned himself to expect. This good feeling he comes to equate with other good feelings that he finds combat stress and anxiety.

Unfortunately, due partly to the dual see-saw action of nicotine on the whole of the nervous system, the good feelings associated with nicotine are very transitory. In other words, they alternate quite rapidly between good and relaxed, and bad and twitchy. They can, however, become constantly adjusted with an extra cigarette or two. Elsewhere in the body the things are not so easily ‘managed’ by the smoker. The one-tenth to one-fifth of a milligram of nicotine that the body absorbs into every litre of blood going through the lungs during the smoking of a cigarette brings about an increase in the heart rate of about 10 beats per minute. (The blood pressure rises too.) A secondary process liberates excessive quantities of noradrenaline into the blood. This noradrenaline may be looked upon as the fundamental stress hormone – the chemical messenger that instinctively prepares us for fight or flight, making us super alert, twitchy and jumpy.

Clearly therefore, although nicotine is a seductive and effective booster at a central level (in the feeling part of the brain), it presents the very opposite effect in other parts of our organism. Of course we do not ‘feel’ these stress effects as such. Smoking, therefore, fails as an anti-stress aid in the long-term process of healthy living, although it allows many people to cope more effectively and enjoyably with their day-to-day existence, their job and even their relationships.

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