Why alcohol and cigarettes go together

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By Dr. Victor Dumaguing

To Your Health

Friday, February 21, 2014


WELL, not always but, let's face it, most of the time. If you are a keen observer of the daily realities of life, you will agree, that when someone is enjoying the spirits of alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) , chances are, he/she is also savoring the supposed joys of puffing a stick of cigarette, complete with that facial expression of ultimate bliss and satisfaction.

The link of alcohol and tobacco products- cigarettes, tobacco- is strong and complex. Most recent researchers and studies have shown that as many as 90% of alcoholics smoke. Add to that the glaring fact that alcoholism is more likely to occur among smokers tha non-smokers. Psychologists and behavioral scientists have forwarded the hypothesis that smoking and alcohol consumption involves a rather deep, sociocultural relationship, in such a way that, one cannot exist without the other. Putting it another way, to borrow a poetic line, if alcohol comes, can smoking be far behind?

While we cannot discount the fact that smoking while drinking may be a part of a learned behavior or habit, there is also a very solid and strong physiologic basis for the relationship, which may boil down to brain chemistry.

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The author remembers his neurology and psychiatry professors saying that there are about twenty chemical substances in our brain, with six of them playing major and critical role in our behavior, emotions, moods, sensation of gratification and satisfaction- sexual or otherwise. A good example is the findings that in depressed, suicidal persons, the amount of the chemical nor-epinephrine is very low, and that addiction or longing for a particuar substance, be it alcohol or just coffee, is due to the substance dopamine. More interesting is that when husband and wife reach the peak of love-making, ther is a burst of oxytocin into their bloodstream, aside from the adrenaline that is responsible for their fast heart rate and slight increase in blood pressure.

Back to the alcohol-cigarette relationship. Nicotine, found in tobacco products stimulate the release of the so-called catecholamines in the brain- most notably nor-epinephrine or nor-adrenaline, a substance which is related to amphetamines ( example is shabu) which all of us know give the person a sense of euphoria or in street parlance " good trip" or a mental high". Now, it is theorized that alcohol, which is a stimulant, at first, enhances the euphoric effects of nicotine from the cigarette smoke. However, as the person drinks more alcohol, the alcohol now acts as a depressant, making the nicotine receptors in the brain to be excited by the nicotine, thus the person has to smoke more cigarettes to increase the nicotine levels in his brain, and ultimately the brain, in order to obtain the same level of satisfaction as in the first few minutes.

Circuitous a pathway as it may seem, so far this is the theory offered by most neurophysiologists as to why a person, who used to smoke a few cigarettes and drank a few shots of alcohol, eventually end up, hooked into the habit, increasing their consumption of both, and worse, making it extremely difficult to wean them out of the habit.

Take home message. If you have not smoke cigarettes before or have not taken alcohol, then probably, it is wise not to start, however strong the temptation is.

Next Week: Does Beer Have Health Benefits?

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on February 22, 2014.

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