While we’re winning the war on tobacco, we’re fueling the obesity epidemic. Americans kept themselves slim for decades puffing on a cigarette, some mistaking the hunger pains as a need for more nicotine. Some purposely curbing their appetite reaching for a smoke.
In the 1920’s Lucky Strike targeting female consumers by promoting the appetite suppressant effects of their cigarettes.
Over the years, adults have wised up to the risks of heart disease, lung cancer, COPD, and chronic respiratory infections, and tobacco users have fallen to record numbers, 16.8% to be exact. Last year, however, the CDC reported 36.5 % of Americans are obese, more than doubling since the 1980’s.
Now smoking cessation doesn’t get all the blame for our obesity crisis. Junk food being cheaper than healthy food, fast food franchises opening up on every street corner, and the average consumer being inundated with plastic products, manipulating one’s metabolism have led to higher weights. But when someone who used cigarettes to curb their appetite can’t reach for one anymore, weight happens.
So many Americans trying to quit smoking have turned to electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs. They “vape” a vapor composed of nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin, water and flavorings.
In 2011, Yale researchers looked into how nicotine can decrease the appetite by studying receptors in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain involved in appetite. Activation of pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) cells within the arcuate nucleus region decreased appetite and food intake and additionally increased energy expenditure, according to Mineur et al.
Nicotine patches and gum have been used anecdotally as well for weight loss. Further research has found nicotine to decrease blood glucose levels, increase insulin resistance and break up stored fat.
Yet nicotine is not without its risks as its one of the most addictive agents out there, equal to that of heroin according to some experts. Moreover, nicotine has been found to affect the kidneys, heart, and induce cancer in studies involving the lungs, GI, breast, and pancreas.
The safety of vaping liquid in e-cigs has been debated as well as the chemicals involved may seem benign at room temperature but what happens when the internal e-cig coil turns the liquid into vapor?
So how can we combat the obesity epidemic if we want consumers to avoid tobacco and stay clear of nicotine and vaping liquid?
Going back to 2011, the Yale researchers also looked at cytisine, a plant compound similar to nicotine, and it worked on the POMC cells as well. According to WebMD, cytisine is found in the seeds of the golden rain tree, and has been used in Eastern Europe for decades to help smokers quit. In late 2014, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found cytisine to trick the brain into thinking it was getting nicotine and was more effective than nicotine replacement therapy in helping smokers stay off cigarettes in the first week, and after two and six months.
Cytisine, a partial agonist of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, can produce side effects as well such as nausea, vomiting, fast heart rate, but appears to be less toxic than nicotine.
So we have a compound that acts like nicotine and can help stave off the obesity ensuing after smoking cessation. In the meantime, I would use caution turning to e-cigs.
For more on the harmful effects of nicotine
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Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, iHeart Radio and Board Certified Family Physician