Say NO to Tobacco – It’s Killing Your Brain, Literally.
You are in a stressful situation, and your brain is in fuzz. You need to clear it up, and fast. A co-worker suggests why not a puff or two from the cigarette they are smoking? After all, how much just a puff can hurt?
Trust us – a lot. A single puff may not hurt but it would set off a chain reaction in your body that will ultimately make you seek those puffs out more and more until you are totally dependent. And once you are, the chemicals present in cigarettes and other Tobacco products can wreck havoc in your body and particularly in your brain – and there are more than just nicotine, the most prominent component of Tobacco.
We all know tobacco is harmful – it affects our cardiovascular health, digestive health, and contributes to several different types of cancer. But what we know less about is its effect on our brain, and how significantly it can damage our learning and cognitive capacities.
May 31st is World No Tobacco Day. On this occasion, let us learn about how much damage a tobacco habit can incur in your brain and why you should stop immediately.
Why do we get addicted to tobacco?
Remember the scenario I gave above? That is exactly how a lot of people start smoking, and that is also why they don’t usually stop before the habit sets in. Nicotine does have a short-term, knee-jerk ‘high’ that can sharpen cognitive functions and working memory. It works lightning-fast – nicotine dissolves in your bloodstream immediately after you inhale or chew up tobacco, and travels to your brain within 10 seconds. Hence, a lot of people use it as a quick-fix in stressful situations.
Now, this ‘high’ looks a lot like the dopamine pathways in our brain. So our brain cannot distinguish the nicotine ‘high’ from a genuine motivational dopamine surge and conflates the nicotine high with our pleasure-reward system. Once you experience the nicotine ‘high’, therefore, your brain craves for its repetition. And the more you repeat, the stronger these cravings become, until you have become completely addicted and have started displaying withdrawal symptoms.
How it harms our brain
As you might have assumed, this little ‘high’ is a minuscule and very short-lived amount of positive in comparison to the massive and life-altering damage tobacco inflicts on your brain.
- Causes cortical damage
Sustained smoking causes a very crucial area of your brain’s grey matter to grow thinner – the cortex. Important cognitive functions like memory, language, and perception take place in the cortex area, so the thinning of cortex can potentially affect all these functions. Chronic smokers specifically display dysfunctions in auditory-verbal learning and memory, prospective memory, working memory, executive functions, visual search speeds, psychomotor speed and cognitive flexibility, general intellectual abilities, and balance. This may lead to early onset of Dementia in older patients.
- Leads immune cells to attack healthy brain cells
Apart from nicotine, tobacco also contains a procarcinogen named NKK that has been linked to neuro-inflammation, a condition that can lead to multiple sclerosis. Basically, NKK triggers a type of immune cells in the brain called microglia. The function of the microglia is to destroy unhealthy brain cells, but when triggered by the NKK they become activated for no reason and start attacking even healthy cells, leading to severe brain cell damage. What’s more, nicotine causes your cell recovery and injury healing process to slow down. This means, your brain self-heals in a much lower speed than it self-destructs.
- Increases Anxiety and Depression
There are two types of amino acids that exist in equilibrium in the human brain – the glutamate and the GABA. Glutamate is an excitatory amino acid that contributes to alertness and focus, but an excess of it can cause severe anxiety and ADHD-like symptoms. GABA helps in balancing out the excess effects of glutamate, and that is why these two chemicals need to remain in equilibrium. Nicotine throws this equilibrium off balance, which can either increase anxiety or depressive tendencies, depending on the amino acid in increase.
- Increases stress
Smokers often say they smoke to relieve stress, but in reality nicotine has just the opposite reaction. The ‘high’ one receives after taking a puff includes a rushing in of adrenaline, one of the neurotransmitters in our brain that regulate the ‘flight-or-flight’ response. The smoker’s heartbeat increases, pupils dilate, and mild sweating may occur. This is the signs of your brain and body going into stress-response mode, and needlessly so. Stress hormones are good only for stressful situations; in normal situations they contribute to overall chronic stress build up leading to a host of health issues.
Whatever ‘high’ you may feel at the moment, tobacco is supremely damaging to your health and there’s no two way about it. If you need any more reasons to quit today, protecting your brain should be a good enough one!