For several decades there has been a lot of discussion about nicotine and its addictive properties, mostly coming from the anti-smoking community. Nicotine addiction causes tobacco consumers to inhale or ingest cancer-causing substances and while smoking is declining in the US, the CDC website reports that Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers.
Nicotine has been credited for some positive impacts as well. For instance, it can help sharpen mental focus in patients with various maladies from ADHD to Parkinson’s disease. It is also suspected of helping to curb appetite and is thus thought to offer potential for weight loss. But it’s the addictive nature of nicotine we want to focus on here and the often-overlooked sources of the chemical in many foods. Can nicotine in foods help explain weight gain as well as weight loss?
Mostly in the family
Tobacco, a primary source of nicotine, is a member of the nightshade family of plants (the Solanaceae). In addition to tobacco, the family is also comprised of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Other foods containing significant amounts of nicotine include okra, some teas, and cauliflower but these are not nightshades.
Nicotine’s addictive nature has been explained in many places including in an article on the Harvard Health website which states,
“Nicotine is addictive because it triggers a reaction in the brain’s reward system, the structures responsible for giving us pleasurable sensations. More specifically, the drug intensifies the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Cocaine and amphetamines do much the same thing; nicotine is tame in comparison. But experts theorize that it may have an added effect because the drug amplifies the brain’s response to the behaviors associated with smoking. In other words, it’s not just nicotine, but the pleasurable sensations it confers on behaviors associated with smoking that make nicotine so addictive.