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Is Nicotine A Drug or a Stimulant?

By Dr. Annie Macpherson
Updated: 2019-09-13

Introduction

Is nicotine a drug or a stimulant?

Is nicotine a depressant? Is nicotine a drug? What type of drug is it? These are questions asked over the ages by scientists, with their earliest recordings in the scientific annals of history being found in 1963 by a scientist P. Nesbitt in an unpublished dissertation for Columbia University. In that dissertation he asserted that nicotine was both a stimulant and a depressant.

Since then,

Scientists have worked to resolve the question, and put nicotine in a box on its own. The answer? It is both, according to multiple studies and literature reviews.

What Is Nicotine?

Nicotine

– is a chemical found in the tobacco leaves of plants such as Nicotiania tabacum and Nicotiana rustica and is known to be a member of the nightshades family of plants according to the Institute for Bio and Food Chemistry.

Other nightshade plants include:

  • Tomatoes

  • Eggplants

  • Bell peppers

  • Even potatoes

And yes, each of these plants has a concentration of nicotine, with plants such as tomatoes holding trace amounts, and the tobacco leaves of tobacco plants holding the most amounts of tobacco at 0.6 to 3.0 percent in tobacco’s dry weight according to the Institute for Bio and Food Chemistry.

But eating eggplants or tomatoes isn’t going to give you the buzz that nicotine will. Nor will eating those products make you feel relaxed after a full meal, unless you are eating something with that meal that contains chemicals that will induce dopamine or serotonin transmission. And it is this combined effects of nicotine that leads to the frequently asked question, is nicotine a depressant or a stimulant?

The quick answer is,

Both, according to the 2014 Guide to Pharmacology report that notes nicotine functions as both an agonist and an antagonist. Or, in other words, it functions as both a depressant and a stimulant. As such, this puts nicotine into the classification of “drug” category. So for inquiring minds wondering if nicotine is a drug, the quick answer is, absolutely. We look to formal definitions on this for confirmation.

Is Nicotine A Drug?

Is nicotine a drug? It’s a question that some may say is in the eye of the beholder. In a nutshell yes, as it is a chemical that one can get addicted to. But this age-old question that centers in most anti-smoking campaigns can be answered with empirical definitions, and with Nesbitt’s Paradox.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “drug” as a substance that is used for medicinal purposes as a medication. But it also defines “drug” as a substance that is “other than food” that is used to create an affect on any function or structure of the human body.

Nicotine produces this effect, thus answering the “is nicotine a drug” question using the good ol’ fashioned dictionary. This “affect” that is produced by nicotine is generally why people consume nicotine, to receive the desired effect of a “buzz” or to accompany a nice relaxing sigh after a big meal.

Recovery Village, a rehab center, concurs on the definition of “drug,” noting there are seven categories of drugs that would meet this definition of a product used to create an affect on the human body.

Those are as follows:

  • Stimulants

  • Depressants

  • Hallucinogens

  • Dissociatives

  • Opiods

  • Inhalants

  • Cannabis

Recovery Village defines a stimulant as a substance that leads to a “speeding up” of the central nervous system, and would include reactions such as increased heart rate or blood pressure. A depressant on the other hand is defined by Recovery Village as something that performs the exact opposite effects, such as a slowing down of the central nervous system in a way that would lead to:

  • relaxation

  • lower blood pressure, and

  • decreased heart rate.

The paradox that P. Nesbitt discovered in 1969 was that nicotine was one of the few chemicals that creates both affects, a depressant affect and a stimulant affect. This was according to P. Nesbitt, the paradox, and his discovery led to the term on nicotine symptoms as Nesbitt’s paradox.

Facts About Nicotine

Nicotine is a stimulant that is said to have positive stimulating impacts on cognition and alertness, with multiple studies supporting this. A 2011 study out of Psychopharmacology examined the literature of 41 different studies and discovere nicotine or cigarette smoking had a positive impact on the body, positively stimulating fine motor skills, alertness, orientation, and even memory!

Other research looked at the impact that quitting smoking or abstinence from nicotine would have on the central nervous system. This research looked at the opposite side of the stimulant coin. If nicotine was able to increase concentration and motor skills, abstaining from nicotine would cause a decrease in these functions, was the hypotheses of researchers in a 2006 study in Psychopharmacology.

Additional Facts About Nicotine

In this study 50 smokers were randomly assigned to either a “smoking” or “abstaining” group, with smokers being asked to smoke at their own paces over a four hour period in the lab. Measures of resting heart rates and attention spans were taken every 30 minutes.

The results from this testing led authors to develop a timeline of withdrawal symptoms for nicotine users, by comparing resting heart rates of those smokers who had to abstain with those who were able to smoke freely over the four hours. Smokers also had higher heart rates and blood pressure recordings. Difficulty concentrating was noted in those who had abstained as well, and is a frequently listed side effect of quitting smoking.

This allowed researchers to conclude that there is support for the notion that nicotine is in fact a stimulant that has an impact on heart rate.

Is Nicotine A Depressant?

Is nicotine a depressant?

Using the definition above, a depressant is something that leads to central nervous system slowing down. That would mean that yes, nicotine is a depressant as well.

Medical News Today notes that the depressant effects of nicotine are noted in nicotine overdoses with the symptoms of heart rate slowing down, blood pressure slowing down, and extreme cases leading to respiratory failure and death. So, yes, nicotine is also a depressant.

Smokers experience this is light forms when smoking, and this is what produces that nice and relaxed feeling after a big meal. A 1973 study in the Journal of Pharmacology was one of the first studies to scientifically document the depressant impacts of nicotine. This study examine a group of smokers and conducted EEG tests to determine whether or not a “contingent negative variation” occurred in smokers, which means that a negative impact on heart tests due to nicotine.

These researchers in the Journal of Pharmacology noted that both stimulant and depressant impacts occurred in smokers exposed to nicotine.

What Type of Drug Is Nicotine?

Nesbitt’s Paradox concluded that nicotine had both sedative and stimulant properties, making it both a sedative and stimulant. But this is not enough to simply satisfy the question of “what type of drug is nicotine?” It really is both though.

A 1998 study out of Addiction confirmed this by noting that there is both increased arousal and decreased stress after nicotine consumption. These researchers found that smoking creates a relaxant property in the body that provides relief after abstinence of smoking.

These researchers also found that the sedative impact of smoking is also a reason why some smokers are more stressed than the average person. They may be thinking of getting that sedative effect in between cigarettes, and become stressed when they are unable to have their “smoke” when they want it or feel they need it.

Research such as this further confirms the notion that nicotine is both a stimulant and a depressant in terms of drug classification. It is never both at the same time however. Increased heart rate and blood pressure rates after smoking shows the stimulant impact of nicotine, and decreased heart rate during its sedative stages illustrates the depressant impact.

The depressant impact can also be attributed to a psychological factor.

If for example someone feels stressed all day because they’ve been in a meeting and can’t have a cigarette, they may feel instantly relaxed the second they are able to get to that smoke. It is indisputable however that the depressant impact of cigarettes occurs in the second stage of nicotine overdose, when nicotine’s depressant qualities can lead to total respiratory failure.

Conclusion

Therefore:

The questions of whether or not nicotine is a depressant or stimulant have been answered by research. The simple answer is both, which was first answered through Nesbitt’s Paradox in 1969. Initially, upon smoking or nicotine consumption, heart rate and blood pressure increases, making nicotine a stimulant. But after some time the heart rate decreases as does blood pressure upon the enjoyment of nicotine. One feels more relaxed after having their cigarette. In some cases, that can be attributed to a psychological effect of nicotine. But, exposure to too much nicotine brings out the depressant qualities of nicotine, and can lead to nicotine overdose and even death.

References

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Dr. Annie Macpherson
Dr. Annie Macpherson

Annie has a PhD in Genome Stability from the University of Sussex. She has first-hand experience in cancer and human disease research. This allows her to provide us with new and unbiased insights into the ongoing research of the public and health effects of vaping. She loves an adventure, and has travelled through South East Asia and Australia working for Vaping Insider.