Effect of Caffeine and Nicotine on the Body and Mind

Stacey Campbell


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Caffeine and nicotine are products that we are very familiar with. Both are used throughout the world and have been for hundreds if not thousands of years. They are not illegal but they are technically considered to be drugs. They affect the brain in many of the same ways that other drugs that are addictive do. Caffeine and nicotine both affect the body as well. Both substances have been shown to have some measure of benefit but they can both cause health concerns. With repeated use the body can develop a tolerance to them which can lead to abuse, dependency and addiction.

Keywords: Caffeine, Nicotine, Addiction, Abuse, Dependency, Health, Body, Brain

Caffeine and Nicotine – What They Do To the Body and Mind

It is probably safe to assume that most people don’t equate drinking an energy drink loaded with caffeine, not being able to really start their day before their daily appointment with their first cup of coffee or using tobacco products throughout the day with drug use. Caffeine and nicotine are however, “the most widely used recreational drugs” (Julien, Advokat & Comaty, 2011). When examining the reasons that caffeine and nicotine are used by so many people we find that they are both available in a wide variety of products, are affordable and are legal to purchase provided you meet age requirements for purchasing tobacco products. They also have psychostimulant properties that users find pleasurable or rewarding. Using too much of either drug can result in habitual use or dependency. This paper will focus on the ways that caffeine and nicotine use affects the body and the mind.

The main reason that I chose to research this topic is that prior to this class I never really thought of caffeine or nicotine as drugs. I knew that people could crave them, experience symptoms of withdrawal if they stopped using them, and that both can have adverse side effects and cause health problems but despite having that knowledge I didn’t think of them like I would cocaine or heroin. This could be simply because I am so familiar with both. I don’t use tobacco products but my parents smoked while I was growing up. People I work with run for their smoke breaks every day. The first thing I do when I get to work is fill up my coffee mug and I look forward to a Diet Mountain Dew when the afternoon starts dragging. Being exposed to tobacco use all my life I have always hated it so I pretty much viewed it as a very harmful, nasty habit. I admittedly have a major crush on, if not a slight addiction to caffeine. I guess I just thought of caffeine as a less than ideal choice but because I enjoy the natural sources it is found in I continue to choose to consume them. It will be interesting for me to research the ways that the body and mind are affected by using caffeine and nicotine when looking at them from a different perspective than usual.


Caffeine can be found in numerous foods and beverages that are included in the typical standard American diet. Among other sources we can find it in our morning cup of coffee, a chocolate bar from the vending machine or a glass of tea with dinner. If we are feeling really tired or need to stay awake to make sure we meet a deadline and we don’t think the coffee is going to cut it we can run to the local drug store and find a few medications that contain caffeine, herbal supplements if we prefer something a little more natural or even energy drinks with very high levels of caffeine if we need an intense surge of caffeine to enhance athletic performance or need to be very alert (Julien et al, 2011).

Caffeine gets a bad rap sometimes. While the negative attention isn’t completely unwarranted, author Jessica Girdwain suggests that caffeine may be, “the world’s best drug” (Girdwain, 2013). She supports her theory by sharing some of the benefits of caffeine. She says that consuming moderate amounts of caffeine can sharpen your mind and improve your cognitive skills by stimulating parts of the brain that are in charge of cognitive thinking, pleasure and alertness. She also claims it can boost a sluggish metabolism by stimulating the central nervous system. Additional benefits she mentions in her article are disease prevention because consuming caffeine can reduce the risk of developing diabetes and some kinds of breast cancer as it can strengthen the body’s defense systems and can trigger the release of dopamine which can decrease the chance of developing depression. She says you may also find that your workouts may be more effective and easier if you drink a little coffee just before because caffeine blocks adenosine so muscles do not get tired as quickly. (Girdwain, 2013).

That all sounds like good news to me but as with most other good things using too much can be problematic. There are health hazards that are associated with using too much caffeine or using it long term. The potential for abusing caffeine is low but it is considered to be an atypical drug of abuse and it is possible for some users to show signs of dependence or abuse. They may feel distressed by the amount of caffeine they use, feel like they cannot stop using it or feel unable to control the amount they are using Because of this there has been debate over whether or not caffeine abuse or dependence should be considered a diagnosis (Ogawa & Ueki, 2007) Doctors Ogawa and Ueki state that, “current cases suggest that caffeine can produce a clinical dependence syndrome similar to those produced by other psychoactive substances” (Ogawa & Ueki, 2007)

Caffeine effects the brain by impersonating the neurochemical adenosine. Adenosine is produced by neurons and the more your body produces the calmer you become. When levels are high enough you get sleepy. The level of adenosine in the body is monitored through receptors, especially the A1 receptor, in the brain and in the body. Caffeine is the same shape and size of adenosine so it enters the receptors the same way but rather than activating them it blocks the nervous systems ability to monitor the level of adenosine. This allows the neurotransmitters glutamate and dopamine, which the body produces naturally, to continue providing their stimulant effect while the adenosine levels are essentially on hold. So caffeine isn’t really doing the stimulating, it just allows the dopamine and glutamate to do their thing unhindered by adenosine. This effect doesn’t last forever and eventually the nervous system will prevail and the tired or sluggish feelings return so we seek out more caffeine. This is why we feel like we can’t function until after the first cup of coffee each morning (DiSalvo, 2012).

Caffeine begins to work quickly within the body but it impacts everyone a little differently. Some people will experience insomnia if they have any caffeine after midday while others can have a cup of caffeinated coffee with dessert after dinner and sleep like a baby. Caffeine stimulates the respiratory and central nervous system and can cause an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. It can result in increased production of stomach acid which can irritate the stomach’s lining. It can have a diuretic effect and has been linked to osteoporosis and a decline in bone density. Heavy or prolonged caffeine use can lead to nervousness, agitation, feeling jittery or shaky and heart palpitations. Caffeine abuse can also trigger the adrenal glands to release hormones that will tell the body to release blood glucose from the storehouses. This causes the pancreas to work harder to produce enough insulin to regulate the blood glucose levels in the body (Connolly, 2000). As with other addictive drugs people may experience withdrawal symptoms if the decide to cut out the caffeine. They may feel a little edgy, be more irritable, be more tired than usual and have headaches for awhile as the body adjusts to not getting the caffeine fix it has become accustomed to receiving (DiSalvo, 2012).


Unlike caffeine, nicotine use is widely known to be related to numerous health problems. While Nicotine can have adverse effects it cannot carry the full blame for disease and death related to its use. Nicotine is what causes a person to become dependent on and addicted to tobacco use but the other compounds contained in cigarettes are to blame for the high level of toxicity. Nicotine can be obtained by smoking cigarettes, using smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco and tobacco products that are dissolvable (Julien et al, 2011).

Many smokers begin smoking at a young age and continue the habit throughout their lifetime. Nicotine is easily absorbed into the body through the skin, gastrointestinal tract, mucosal membranes and lungs. When inhaled it is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream via the lungs. Users can regulate the amount of nicotine in their blood controlling the number of breaths they take, how deeply they inhale, how long they wait before expelling the smoke from their lungs and how many cigarettes they use. Nicotine is dispersed throughout the body rapidly and there are no barriers that it cannot cross and it is found in all bodily fluids (Julien et al, 2011).

Nicotine differs from other drugs of addiction because it goes directly to the brain where neurotransmitters that result in gratification are produced instead of stopping at other sensory centers. Using nicotine for an extended time can affect the way the brain functions and even alter the structure of the brain. The centers of the brain that control emotions and motivation develop connections in response to high levels of nicotine. These changes make it very difficult for a person to resist the triggers that make them want to smoke. They may want to or attempt to quit smoking but smoking is more than just a habit, it is also a compulsion. The structural changes in the brain do not revert back to normal simply because one stops smoking. It can take years of abstaining from cigarettes for these changes to be resolved. This makes the risk of relapse very high (Leone, unknown)

Within seconds of nicotine entering the bloodstream it enters the brain and binds to neural receptors. This calls the neurons to action. Networks of neurons that are contained within the brain’s reward center signal the release of dopamine, a natural feel good chemical. This makes the brain consider nicotine to be a positive activity, like eating or sexual activity are. Continued nicotine use strengthens this connection and the brain begins to consider it as necessary for survival as eating, drinking and procreating. Dopamine levels drop as nicotine levels do. This results in cravings that trigger the smoker to reach for another cigarette that will deliver the nicotine the brain thinks it must have. As with caffeine and other addictive drugs the more nicotine you use the more you need as the body becomes tolerant. Smokers become chemically dependent early on and the addiction grows stronger over time. Neural pathways that connect smoking to all kinds of emotions and situations begin to form. That is why cigarettes are commonly smoked almost in a ritualistic manner. Stressed? Driving? Just finished a meal or task? Just finished having Sex? Reach for a cigarette because the emotions and situations are connected and these and many others trigger the desire for a nicotine fix because they are associated with each other by the brain (Kellet, 2012)

As mentioned above the thousands of compounds found in cigarettes are more hazardous to the body than nicotine itself is. The deadly chemicals and compounds in cigarettes increase the risk of many kinds of cancer throughout the body. It can weaken the immune system, lead to heart disease, shorten life expectancy dramatically, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of stroke and cause many respiratory diseases like emphysema, COPD and asthma. Women who smoke during pregnancy risk increase of premature delivery, low birth weight and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Men who smoke are also more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction. This is certainly not an exhaustive list of the damage cigarettes can cause. (National Cancer Institute, unknown). Nicotine in and of itself can still affect the cardiovascular system, central nervous system and respiratory system negatively. Nicotine has been shown to boost working memory and performance of cognitive tasks (Julien et al, 2011). Some research has also shown that it may help prevent ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Tourette’s Syndrome (Hamilton, Unknown). Even though nicotine may have some benefits it seems that the risks outweigh the benefits. Jack Henningfield said,

At this point, I would contend that the cognitive benefits which have been documented are of such limited generality and low magnitude that they could hardly be considered to be clinically meaningful, except for nicotine’s efficacy in reversing deficits which occur during cigarette abstinence in nicotine dependent people (Henningfield, 1994).

Christianity and Substance Abuse

Although smoking and caffeine use are not specifically addressed in the Bible there are many passages in the Bible that urge and warn Christians to avoid treating our bodies badly. One that clearly states how Christians should view substance abuse of any kind is found in 1st Corinthians. It reads, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1st Corinthians 6:19-20, New International Version). It doesn’t get much clearer than that. While many Christians use caffeine and nicotine those things, especially when used to the point of addiction and abuse, would probably not be considered to be a way that we can glorify God with our bodies. Using these substances will not make a person unforgivable. They can still be saved and cannot lose their salvation if they are already saved. Freeing yourself from addiction is hard but if we are willing to try we can find encouragement in Scripture as well. Phillipians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Holy Bible, NIV). The struggle may be real but the strength of Christ can help us overcome.

Caffeine and Nicotine are both substances that affect the brain and body. They create feelings of pleasure within the body that leave us wanting to experience the feelings again. Caffeine can give us a much needed pick me up. It is easy to develop a habit of consuming caffeine and over time can turn into a dependency or addiction as we continue to trick our bodies into being alert and responsive. It is also easy to justify using caffeine as the risk for abusing it is low and moderate use doesn’t seem to be terribly dangerous. There are certainly worse things we could be putting in our bodies than coffee, colas and Hershey bars.

Nicotine dependency can happen fairly quickly. The brain adapts to the drug and the desire to keep levels of nicotine and dopamine steady is so strong that it drives the user to keep going back for more. This is often the case even when they know fully well that doing so is likely damaging their health, could shorten their lifespan and can be compromising the health of the people who are around them when they smoke. They may wish to stop smoking but the changes that nicotine causes within the body make quitting a monumental task and if they do manage to stop using products containing nicotine the chance of relapsing is fairly high. There are products available that may help people who are trying to stop smoking. They provide nicotine in measured amounts to help people maintain and decrease nicotine levels while avoiding the habit of smoking cigarettes to get their fix. People can try using chewing gum with nicotine, patches that are applied to the skin that allow nicotine to be absorbed into the body, nasal sprays and electronic cigarettes. These products also eliminate the exposure to the 4000 plus compounds that are released when tobacco is burned (Julien et al, 2011).


Researching caffeine and nicotine through new lenses has revealed that they both act very similarly to other addictive drugs within the body. The body enjoys them and desires them. The body can become tolerant to both so users will need to use more to satisfy the cravings. They may not be illegal but they certainly can be addictive. Both can cause withdrawal symptoms if they are stopped suddenly. Sounds quite a bit like drug use and abuse to me.


Connolly, R. (2000, August 7). Caffeine. Retrieved from http://www.pe2000.com/self_help_techniques/caffeine/

DiSalvo, D. (212, July 26). What caffene really does to your brain. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/07/26/what-caffeine-really-does-to-your-brain/

Girdwain, J. (2013). Is caffeine the world’s BEST drug?. Redbook, 220(3), 90.

Hamilton, W. (Unknown). Nicotine benefits. Retrieved from http://www.forces.org/evidence/hamilton/other/nicotine.htm

Henningfield, J. (1994). Comments on west’s editorial “beneficial effect of nicotine: fact or fiction?”. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.1994.tb00865.x/pdf

Julien, R., Advokat, C., & Comaty, J. (2011). A primer of drug action. (12th ed.).

New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Kellett, C. (2012, December 3). The short and long term effects of nicotine on the brain. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/search?q=how nicotine affects the brain&sourceid=ie7&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-Address&ie=&oe=&rlz=

Leone, F. (Unknown). Nicotine’s effect on the brain. Retrieved from http://phillycopd.com/WP1/web-cme-resourcesintroduction/section-1-tobacco-use-treatment/knowledgecontent/nicotine-brain-effect/

National Cancer Institute. (Unknown). Harms of smoking and health benefits of quitting. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Tobacco/cessation

Ogawa, N., & Ueki, H. (2007). Clinical importance of caffeine dependence and abuse. Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 61(3), 263-268. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1819.2007.01652.x

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