Is nicotine a stimulant or a depressant?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Full ashtray

Smoking cigarettes.
Photo courtesy of

Is Tobacco an upper or a downer?

Half the articles I read tell me that Nicotine is a depressant. The other half, just as authoritatively, say it is a stimulant. It can’t be both, can it?

Smokers will tell you that when they get up in the morning they need a smoke to wake them up and get them going. Those very same smokers will tell you that at bedtime then need one last cigarette to calm them down and put them to sleep. How is this working?

Nicotine is one of a very small group of chemicals, probably the only one that is in common use, which works as both a stimulant and a depressant. Chemicals like this are called Biphasic.

Pure Nicotine is very, very poisonous.

As an insecticide, in its pure form, it will kill insects like crazy. But as a pure chemical, if it is sprayed on a field and gets on workers, those laborers will end up in the hospital and may die. So why doesn’t it kill smokers, quick like? If it killed you the first time you used it, there wouldn’t be many long-term smokers would there?

The nicotine from three packs of cigarettes, if consumed in pure form, would kill the average adult. A child could die from much less. Most of the nicotine in a cigarette is broken down by the burning and is taken in slowly, a small amount at a time. This result is a chronic low-level of the poisonous chemicals in the bloodstream rather than a single large fatal dose. A small child or pet eating a few cigarettes could reach a toxic, fatal level.

Most cases of nicotine poisoning and death are the result of being exposed to highly concentrated nicotine used as an insecticide. While nicotine was commonly used as an insecticide in the past, it has been replaced by newer more modern insecticides.

The one area in which nicotine is still permitted is in “organic” crops since nicotine is derived from a plant. Some countries have banned the use of nicotine as an insecticide and it appears likely that even the use for organic food will soon be eliminated.

Nicotine’s effects depend on the blood level.

In the early stages, the nicotine stimulates many responses in the body. The smoker, by taking in that first puff in the morning, believes they are energized.

As the day progresses the levels of nicotine in the bloodstream fluctuate. After each smoke, the level rises. The body, principally the liver, attempts to remove the toxin and the level is reduced. This up-down action creates the craving the smoker experiences.

The administration of any drug in many small doses, particularly by smoking, increases the addiction potential.

Late in the day, the smoker will have achieved a relatively high level of nicotine in the bloodstream. At high doses, the nicotine begins to depress systems in the body. Just before bedtime, the habitual smoker will smoke more in a shorter period of time in an effort to relax for sleep. The level of nicotine will slowly fall during the night as the liver detoxifies the drug.

Smokers instinctively respond to these low dose – high dose effects. A smoker who is trying to feel stimulated will take many short puffs. The smoker trying to sedate themselves will take fewer long puffs and raise the level in the bloodstream more rapidly.

It seems likely that many poisonous chemicals would affect the body in the same biphasic way. At low doses, the poison stimulates the body to defend itself and at high doses, the body shuts down under the effects of the poison. Nicotine, unlike many other poisons, is different in that it is able to produce these body and mind-altering effects which users find so pleasant while producing the diseases and death slowly over time rather than quickly.

Nicotine withdrawal.

Another reason for Nicotine’s calming effects is that repeated smoking counteracts the withdrawal or abstinence effect. As the level of nicotine in the smoker’s body drops they begin to experience withdrawal and become agitated. By replacing the nicotine in the bloodstream the smoker is delaying the withdrawal and reliving the agitation.

Tobacco keeps its users alive and dependent on it for their mood state changes for as long as it can.

Why do the effects of nicotine on the body matter to readers of a blog on mental health and substance abuse issues?

Because, by one report, the majority of cigarettes consumed in America are smoked by people with a diagnosed mental illness. Hope this post helps explain the way in which nicotine can both stimulate and depress the body.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Six David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Some family secrets can be deadly.

What if your family secrets put you in danger?

Letters from the Dead The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead?

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Sasquatch. Wandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive?

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

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