Is Nicotine the Next Big Smart Drug?
By: Dave Asprey
December 1, 2015
People often confuse the effects of caffeine with the effects of coffee, even though caffeine and coffee are different substances (coffee has hundreds of chemicals; caffeine is just one of them). Likewise, nicotine gets the headlines when it comes to tobacco, even though it’s just one of the 5,000+ chemicals in cigarette smoke.
There’s a lot more to nicotine than smoking and addiction. Like caffeine, it’s a powerful smart drug, and when you get it at low doses in its pure form – without toxins and carcinogens wrapped around it and rolled into a cigarette – nicotine can be a formidable (if occasional) biohack. Based on my experience with it, and on history, I predict that nicotine (not smoking) will become much more popular for performance and cognitive enhancement. After all, about 99% of great works of literature in the last 200 years (p > .05) were written under the influence of coffee and nicotine! But just how safe is it?
Here’s an overview of the ups and downs of nicotine, along with a few practical and safety tips if you decide to add it to your biohacking arsenal.
This post is likely to piss off at least a few people. Sorry about that; I don’t like smoking and I’ve never been a smoker. This science is solid – nicotine is an extensively studied psychoactive chemical. I invite you to separate nicotine from the stigma of tobacco and read this post with an open mind.
What is nicotine?
Like caffeine, nicotine is a defense mechanism made by plants to keep from being eaten by animals, bugs, or fungus – in fact, caffeine and nicotine are in the same chemical family. Many plants produce nicotine and store it in their leaves; it’s bitter and toxic in large doses, keeping hungry animals at bay. Nicotine is most famously in tobacco, but you’ll also find small amounts of it in members of the nightshade family – tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants, for example. There’s even a tiny bit of nicotine in cauliflower.
Nicotine is toxic to smaller animals, but humans can withstand a good deal of it – and derive benefits from it. When nicotine reaches your brain, it binds to nicotinic receptors (guess where they got their name?), activating pathways that control attention, memory, motor function, and pleasure. Nicotine attaches to several types of nicotinic receptors; each receptor affects your brain in a specific way.
Nicotine enhances coordination, vigilance, memory, and reaction time
Excess nicotine is toxic, but when you get the right amount, nicotine does a lot for you. For starters, it gives you faster, more precise motor function. People show more controlled and fluent handwriting after taking nicotine , and they’re also able to tap their fingers faster without sacrificing accuracy . The finger tap test is one I used in the original tests of human performance on Bulletproof mold-tested Upgraded Coffee vs. generic coffee – it appears that mold slows down your finger tap speed. (That test is published in The Bulletproof Diet book.)
Nicotine makes you more vigilant, too. Participants who used nicotine patches were able to pay attention to a mentally tiring task longer than controls could [3,4]. Nicotine gum did the same thing [5,6].
Nicotine also sharpens your short-term memory. People who took nicotine better recalled a list of words they’d just read, and also repeated a story word-for-word, making fewer mistakes than people given placebo made [7,8,9]. Again, the boost in memory came from both patches and gum.
You can even speed up your reaction time with nicotine. Both smokers and nonsmokers reacted more quickly to visual cues after a nicotine injection  — although I’ll save my injections for vitamins, thanks.
Finally, nicotine suppresses appetite. If you’re looking to lose weight and you’re getting food cravings, a small dose of nicotine could help eliminate them . One randomized, double-blind study showed that combining low-dose nicotine gum with caffeine enhanced appetite suppression , so adding nicotine to Bulletproof Intermittent Fasting once in awhile may boost your fast. It’s the Bulletproof version of coffee and cigarettes.
To recap, nicotine:
- refines your motor skills
- heightens your ability to pay attention
- improves your short-term memory
- speeds up your reaction time
- Suppresses appetite, especially when combined with caffeine
Slow-release patches, low-dose gum, mouth sprays, and injections all work, but some have more risks than others. More on how to take nicotine in a minute.
The downsides of nicotine
There are some real downsides to nicotine, the most infamous of which is its addictive potential. Nicotine activates your mesolimbic dopamine system, which scientists have aptly nicknamed the brain’s “pleasure pathway.”
The pleasure pathway is a double-edged sword. Food, sex, love, and rewarding drugs all cause this part of your brain to light up, sending a euphoric rush of dopamine through your system and leaving you in bliss. If you indulge on a regular basis, though, the constant stimulation dulls the pathway. Your receptors start to pull back into your neurons, where they are very hard to activate, and you start to feel physically ill unless you get more of whatever you were enjoying or something else equally stimulating. That’s how dependence starts.
In 2007, a hallmark addiction study ranked 20 common recreational drugs on a scale of 0 to 3, with higher scores indicating greater risk of dependence. Tobacco clocked in as the third most addictive drug overall. It had a score of 2.21, beaten only by cocaine (2.39) and heroin (3.00) .
However, it’s important to note that the people in the study were smoking cigarettes, which deliver a substantial 15-20 mg dose of nicotine within seconds. The large, sudden rush of nicotine lights up your pleasure pathway like a Christmas tree. Other forms of nicotine are very different. Nicotine gum, for example, releases only 2-4 mg over the course of 20-30 minutes, so you don’t get a euphoric rush from it, but you still get nicotine’s benefits.
Nicotine has a few other pitfalls:
- Nicotine by itself (separate from tobacco) promotes cancer in rats  and mice . It also makes tumors grow faster and spread more quickly in mice . The cancer link has never shown up in human studies, so it’s hard to say whether nicotine is a cancer risk for people. Dose matters; I’m talking about very low dose, occasional targeted use in this post.
- A 21 mg nicotine patch increased participants’ heart rate and blood pressure in one study .
- Nicotine inhibits interleukin-10, an anti-inflammatory protein, increasing inflammation .
- Most importantly, nicotine is a poison at high doses. You can get really sick if you overuse it. Nicotine gum, lozenges, or leftover patches could hurt or even kill a pet or a child. Store and treat this stuff with care.
These downsides are the reason I recommend that, if you decide to use nicotine, you do it at very low dose (1-2mg), and only occasionally as needed. I’ve used nicotine a handful of times over the past four years and I’ve tried out many different forms, but it’s certainly not something I do regularly. It’s useful for an occasional boost.
What form of nicotine is best?
You have eight options if you want to occasionally use nicotine as a nootropic. You can smoke tobacco, chew it, use gum, spray, patches, lozenges, or the new electronic cigarettes (e-cigs). In true Bulletproof style, here’s the ordered list, from worst option to best option.
Smoking – the only upside to smoking is that it releases anatabine, a compound that suppresses autoimmune problems with the thyroid (Izabella Wentz, podcast #256, taught me that!). However, things like cancer and smelling bad make smoking a bad choice for so many reasons…
Chewing tobacco – chewing tobacco causes face cancer. Whether it’s the tobacco or the mold from curing tobacco is unclear. Tobacco mold is a major source aflatoxin B-1, an exceptionally carcinogenic mold toxin . In any case, walking around without lips isn’t worth it. There are other nootropics. Chewing tobacco also releases 3-4 times as much nicotine as smoking a cigarette does 
E-cigs (and vaping) are controversial but most people say they’re safe, although I have real concerns about nanoparticles of heavy metals from e-cig combustion chambers. You don’t want to breathe that stuff! I got a high end e-cig and tried it; it caused throat irritation and made me cough even after I tried getting used to it, so I don’t use them or recommend them. It’s way better than smoking or chewing tobacco, however.
Nicotine gum releases only 2-4 mg over the course of 20-30 minutes, so you don’t get a euphoric rush from it, but you still get nicotine’s energy benefits. Addiction to nicotine gum is possible but rare.  The problem with nicotine gum is that chewing gum fires your trigeminal nerve more than it should be firing. Save your chewing for eating, and your jaw (and nervous system) will be healthier. Also, every brand of gum I’ve found has aspartame in it, often along with other questionable artificial sweeteners.
Nicotine patches are somewhere in between gum and cigarettes: they contain more nicotine than the gum does, but you absorb it through your skin slowly throughout the day so you get the focus and energy. It isn’t particularly rewarding, but your energy is higher and more stable. When I used to use patches, I’d take the smallest dose patch I could find, and cut it in half even though it says not to on the label. I’d leave it on for 1-2 hours, so I would get 1-4 mg of nicotine. Jackee, our esteemed Bulletproof podcast producer, heard that I was experimenting with nicotine patches a couple years ago. She went out and bought the largest 25mg patches, and slapped one on. An hour later, she felt amazing and focused. Three hours later, she was nauseous and felt like puking, and the feeling lasted for a long time. I emphasize again that nicotine is a poison – even “used up” patches can kill small animals that eat them. You want LOW DOSE.
Nicotine inhalers are relatively hard to find. Nicorette makes these too, and they’re good because they have no chemicals at all; it’s just a sponge with nicotine, and a little plastic straw you suck through to get nicotine-scented air. I like these because they’re free of nasty chemicals, but the downside is that the act of sucking on something appears to be addictive; I found myself wanting to take a puff from one sitting on my desk when I didn’t need it. In one year, I went through maybe half a pack of inhaler refills, and many of those went stale. You use them at way lower doses than you would for quitting smoking, and it’s too easy to keep taking extra puffs.
Nicotine lozenges mostly suffer from the same problem as nicotine gum; they’re full of crappy chemicals and sweeteners like aspartame, acesulfame-potassium (Ace-K), and sucralose. The safest one I’ve found is the Nicorette mini-lozenge, which is very small, and contains no aspartame. You do get a small dose of unsafe sweetener, but it’s so tiny that it probably doesn’t matter. I take ½ of the smallest 2mg lozenge, and feel a cognitive shift in about 15 minutes. These are easy to find in the US. Go for the mini lozenges; large Nicorette lozenges are full of chemicals you don’t want.
Nicotine spray – This is a recent invention; you get about 100 sprays of 1mg each. Each spray contains vanishingly small amounts of sucralose, probably not enough to disrupt the gut biome. You spray it under your tongue and feel it quickly, making it an excellent option when you want a burst of sustained energy. I’ve done more than one interview on this – I find it’s great for jet lag or when you have a heavy day ahead of you and want to maintain focus.
In summary, here’s your list of options, from worst to best:
- Chewing tobacco
- Nicotine gum
- Nicotine patches
- Nicotine inhaler
- Nicotine lozenges
- Nicotine mouth spray
Is nicotine valuable as a nootropic?
It all depends on how you take it. Using a lozenge or a low-dose mouth spray gives you benefits and minimizes risk. Using a patch is a little bit iffier. Smoking is a disaster.
If you do decide to try nicotine, treat it carefully. A safe bet would be to take it on an ad-hoc basis. Use it if you want to be extra-sharp for a big presentation or a 3-hour meeting, but avoid taking it daily.
Happy biohacking! And seriously, don’t start smoking. It’s stupid. Don’t get sick on nicotine either; it’s dangerous. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility (at least that’s what Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said, and we *know* he was using nicotine…)
P.S. Big tobacco has done some awful stuff. Nicotine replacements are a huge improvement, but even they aren’t black and white. I have no financial relationship with tobacco or nicotine companies, although I do have a personal gardening relationship with tobacco…I grow some in my backyard to keep aphids away. Thanks for reading!