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Last Updated: 12.06.23

Nicotine’s Effects on the Brain & Body & How to Quit Smoking or Vaping

In this episode, Huberman delves into the impact of nicotine on the brain and body. He explains its ability to enhance focus, alertness, and activate neural circuits. Different delivery methods, associated health risks, and effective strategies for quitting smoking are discussed. This episode is valuable for understanding nicotine’s effects and quitting habits.

Key Takeaways

High level takeaways from the episode.

Nicotine is one of the most commonly consumed substances globally

Billions of people ingest nicotine daily, mostly through smoking tobacco

Nicotine is not what causes cancer, but the delivery device (smoking, vaping, etc.) does

Nicotine is found in tobacco plants, nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants, sweet peppers), and potatoes

  • It is a plant alkaloid that evolved to prevent insects from eating plants
  • Acts as a pesticide, disrupting insect nervous systems and fertility

Nicotine has different effects on humans, including:

  • Cognitive function enhancement
  • Mood modulation
  • Potential protection against certain forms of cognitive impairment

However, excessive nicotine consumption can impair cognitive function

Nicotine binds to nicotinic receptors in the brain and body

  • These receptors exist for acetylcholine, not because of tobacco or other external sources of nicotine
  • Activation of nicotinic receptors can trigger directed rewiring of the brain (neuroplasticity)

Separating nicotine from its delivery device (e.g., smoking, vaping) is crucial when discussing its effects

Nicotine can be powerful as a mood modulator

  • Quitting nicotine, especially through smoking, can cause a significant drop in mood

Nicotine can have both positive and negative effects on cognitive function, depending on dosage and individual factors

Children, pregnant individuals, and those with addictive tendencies or mood disorders should be cautious with nicotine use

Further research and understanding of nicotine’s effects on the brain and body are needed to make informed decisions about its use

Nicotine does not cause infertility in humans

Nicotine can reduce penile girth and lead to sexual dysfunction due to changes in blood flow and endothelial cell function

Ingesting nicotine takes 2–15 minutes to enter the bloodstream

  • Smoking and vaping are faster than direct contact with mucosal lining

Neurochemical effects of nicotine:

Mesolimbic reward pathway (dopamine reward pathway)
Nicotine triggers the release of dopamine from the nucleus accumbens, increasing motivation, well-​​being, and alertness
Also decreases activity of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter
Increase in acetylcholine

Neuromodulator that exists in humans

Nicotine suppresses appetite and increases metabolism

  • Binds to the alpha‑4 beta‑2 receptor in the brain

Difficult to quit nicotine due to its potent increase in dopamine and decrease in GABA

Nicotine causes direct transient increases in metabolism (2% to 5%)

Effects of nicotine on the body

  • Increases heart rate, blood pressure, and contractility of the heart
  • Increases sympathetic tone (alertness and physical readiness)
  • Constricts blood vessels, reducing blood flow to various tissues
  • Chronic nicotine use can impair blood flow to various organs

Nicotine can relax skeletal muscle

  • Counterintuitive due to acetylcholine’s role in muscle contraction
  • Related to neural circuits upstream of muscles and autonomic nervous system arrangement

Overall effects of nicotine

  • Activates reward pathways
  • Increases attention, alertness, and mood
  • Raises blood pressure and heart rate
  • Enhances preparedness for thinking
  • Relaxes the body
  • Creates an ideal state for cognitive work

Nicotine is useful for mental work, not physical performance.

Negative side effects of nicotine

  • Dipping or chewing tobacco increases risk of oral cancer
  • Not recommended for people under 25 years old 
    • Can create nicotine dependence and negatively impact brain

Nicotine should not be ingested through smoking, vaping, or direct contact with tobacco.

Negative effects of smoking, vaping, dipping, snuffing

  • Damages endothelial cells, which make up the vasculature 
    • Negatively impacts blood and nutrient delivery to all cells, organs, and tissues
  • Cigarettes contain thousands of toxins and carcinogens 
    • Ammonia, tar, formaldehyde, and carbon dioxide are potent carcinogens
    • Carbon dioxide depletes oxygen delivery to tissues

Estimated 14-​​year reduction in lifespan for every pack of cigarettes smoked per day

Negative health effects of nicotine consumption (nicotine is not the cause of cancer, but other substances in tobacco and nicotine delivery devices are):

  • Increased probability of cancer, stroke, heart attack, peripheral neuropathies
  • Cognitive dysfunction, memory impairment, sexual dysfunction
  • Minor increases in cortisol, decreases in growth hormone

70% of cigarette smokers want to quit but find it difficult due to brain neurochemistry


  • Occur as soon as 4 hours after the last ingestion of nicotine
  • Symptoms include agitation, craving for nicotine, stomach aches, nausea, irritability
  • Craving is due to a drop in dopamine below baseline levels

Vaping resembles crack cocaine in terms of speed of entry of nicotine into the bloodstream

  • Vaping causes a very rapid increase in blood concentrations of nicotine, faster than other modes of delivery
  • Speed of onset determines how habit-​​forming and addictive a substance is
  • Faster dopamine release in mesolimbic reward pathway makes vaping more addictive than cigarette smoking

Young people’s brains getting wired to expect rapid, dramatic dopamine increases

  • Leads to a progressive narrowing of the things that bring pleasure

Vaping associated with increased levels of depression, especially when use drops off

Vaping is harder to quit than cigarette smoking for most people

Methods for qutting vaping /​​ smoking

  • Clinical hypnosis: 23% success rate in quitting smoking after one session. Available through Reverie app
  • Wellbutrin: 20% success rate. Contraindications: increased seizure risk, use caution in patients with liver or renal disease
  • Nicotine replacement therapy: nicotine patches/​​gum, gradually reducing intake over time

Consuming alcohol increases the probability of relapse after quitting nicotine


Science-​​based tools and supplements that push the needle.

Clinical Hypnosis for Quitting Vaping /​​ Smoking


Pharmacological Methods for Quitting Vaping /​​ Smoking


Combination of Nicotine Replacement Therapy for Quitting Vaping /​​ Smoking



We recommend using this distillation as a supplemental resource to the source material.

  • Nicotine’s Effects on the Brain & Body & How to Quit Smoking or Vaping

    Huberman Lab #90

    In this episode, Huberman explores nicotine’s effects on the brain and body, including attention enhancement and addiction. Quitting strategies are discussed.

Full Notes

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