How Nicotine Affects Your Heart

Yes, yes we all know by now - smoking is not good for you. It’s sure a change in perspective from the 1930s to 1950s when doctors actually recommended smoking to their patients! Today, most of us are aware that smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your body; but few of us know exactly what nicotine does in the body. Why is it so harmful to our hearts?

Where is nicotine found?

Nicotine, as we know, is found in tobacco; however, it is also in smokeless tobacco (i.e. chewing tobacco), pipes and cigars, electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), and even some drugs we use to help people stop smoking (nicotine replacement products). Let’s not forget the secondhand smoke some of us are exposed to on a frequent basis.

Effect on the heart

Nicotine is a stimulant, activating a part of our nervous system referred to as the sympathetic nervous system. This is the flight or fight part of the central nervous system. Nicotine also causes the release of many hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, which play a role in addiction. It increases the risk of a heart attack through several mechanisms, including:1,2

  • Inflammation - nicotine puts the body at a chronic inflammatory state by increasing white blood cell count. When the body is always in an inflamed state, it will eventually start damaging healthy cells of the heart, leading to tissue death and scarring.
  • Increases workload - nicotine increases heart rate by 10-20 beats per minute after just one cigarette. That puts enormous pressure on the heart, which must now work harder to meet demands. Imagine what happens when someone runs a marathon: they need food to supply their energy during the run. The same goes for your heart, which now needs more oxygen and blood. However, smoking also damages the blood vessels, reducing the number of nutrients that reach the heart.
  • Increases clotting - smoking increases clotting because it enhances platelet activation. When blood starts clotting, the risk of a heart attack increases.

Are nicotine replacement products safe?

Some people reading this may be thinking: if nicotine is so bad, why did my doctor recommend a nicotine patch to curb my smoking cravings? This has been a topic of great discussion in the medical world.

Some studies have attempted to determine if there is truly a risk of these nicotine replacement products. One study followed 5,877 smokers for 5 years who attempted to quit smoking by using the nicotine gum. The study found that there was no increase in heat-related hospitalizations for people using the gum. The dose of the gum didn’t seem to matter either - people on high doses of nicotine had no increase in hospitalizations. Several other studies have shown that the risk of using these nicotine products is overall low, at least much less than the risk of continued smoking.3

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