When nicotine enters the bloodstream, it activates the reward and pleasure circuits in the brain by boosting the levels of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter dopamine. The substance is also known to affect areas of the brain which regulate breathing, memory (enhancing it), appetite, and heart rate, and the brain can quickly become addicted to this stimulatory effect.
Additionally, smokers tend to smoke when they are socializing with friends, when they are bored, when they need a pick me up and so on. Years of doing this conditions one’s brain to associate smoking with pleasure, hence why the psychological withdrawal symptoms of nicotine are hard to overcome, despite overcoming the physical ones.
The physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal
When nicotinic receptors in the brain are suddenly deprived of nicotine, the release of dopamine drops. This naturally leads to an uncomfortable feeling and an intense yearning for smoking, something which the body would have grown accustomed to needing for the release of dopamine. Nicotine cravings can last for anything from 5 to 30 minutes, can be extremely uncomfortable, and will only start fading away with time, or with the use of Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)
Titled, “Tobacco withdrawal increases junk food intake: The role of the endogenous opioid system,” the study was recently published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Lead study author Mustafa al’Absi, PhD, a licensed psychologist and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the Medical School of the University of Minnesota, and his team, looked at the brain functions responsible for addiction and appetite regulation, as a possible preference for junk food during nicotine withdrawal.
The researchers studied a group of smoking and non-smoking participants aged between 18 and 75, who were randomly assigned to do a 24-hour withdrawal from nicotine products and administered either a placebo or 50 mg of naltrexone. At the end of each session, participants were offered a variety of snacks which differed in calorie levels, and salt, sugar and fat content.
As expected, the research team found that the participants in nicotine withdrawal, opted for food high in calories, salt, fat and sugar. They observed that the receptors in the brain’s opioid system were involved. “Choice and consumption of food items were impacted by smoking condition (withdrawal > ad lib smoking and non-smokers; p < .05), the opioid blockade (naltrexone < placebo; p < .05), and sex (male > female; p < .05). The effects were evidenced in high sweet and high fat foods. No differences were found in low sweet and fat foods.”
To this effect, concluded the researchers, the use of food, especially the kind that is high in calories, tends to be used to cope “with the negative affect and distress that characterizes the feelings people experience during smoking withdrawal.”