Why do we crave a cigarette after drinking alcohol, especially when we don’t normally smoke?
Many of us will have experienced that familiar sensation after a couple of drinks – when all of a sudden the urge to smoke a cigarette pops into our heads and becomes impossible to ignore.
It’s a lot more common than you may think and people have been desperate to find out why this happens.
So if you are one of these ‘social smokers’ and have wondered where these pesky cravings come from, you’ve come to the right place.
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Dr John Dani, a neuroscientist and addiction expert from the University of Pennsylvania, claims that the craving to smoke under the influence of alcohol has two origins.
First, he believes that nicotine ‘tricks’ the brain into creating memory associations between environmental cues – such as alcohol – and smoking behaviour.
“Our brains normally make these associations between things that support our existence and environmental cues so that we conduct behaviours leading to successful lives,” he explains.
“The brain sends a reward signal when we act in a way that contributes to our well-being.
“However, nicotine commandeers this subconscious learning process in the brain so we begin to behave as though smoking is a positive action.”
The neuroscientist also shares his own experiences of how he noticed colleagues who started smoking once they had a drink.
“I had known him for many years and never knew he smoked, but then he admitted he could really go for a cigarette,” Dr Dani continues.
“He said he hadn’t smoked in 20 years, not since high school. But now he has a few drinks and feels the urge to smoke.”
That’s one reason why the desire for a cigarette with your drink arises, but there’s yet another aspect to consider.
It is well known that alcohol and nicotine – when taken separately – can enhance dopamine levels in the brain.
The combined effect of these two mechanisms is what makes cigarettes irresistibly appealing once you have had a few.
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Based on this, Dr Dani and his team speculated that consuming nicotine and alcohol together would lead to even higher dopamine levels.
However, their results surprised them as it went completely against their hypothesis.
They conducted their studies on rats and they saw that when the rodents were given nicotine, they demonstrated increased alcohol consumption.
But instead of increasing their dopamine levels, it flatlined instead.
Due to this, they concluded that taking cigarettes and alcohol together will make you less happy.
It’s a cycle that starts when people drink as the alcohol brings up positive memories of smoking a cigarette – leading to you craving some nicotine.
However, after having a few puffs while drinking, your levels of dopamine drop.
So you then have the urge to drink more alcohol to increase levels of happiness-inducing dopamine – leading to the cycle starting over.
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