Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tobacco: The Other Nightshade*

[The following section has been removed from the forth-coming fourth entry in the Dead Man's Hand series, because some of the speculations I've begun making (and which are not being disclosed here) are potentially harmful to put out in conjunction with the rest of the information I've been focusing over for the last few years.]

While nicotine is typically viewed as the principle psychoactive ingredient, it hardly remains alone in terms of psychoactive alkaloids that are present in the tobacco plant. Between roughly 0.6% - 3.0% of the weight of the tobacco plant is constituted by the alkaloid, the rest being different.

However, it is not the only psychoactive alkaloid present within the plant. The plant contains two very effective MAOIs: Norharman and Harman. But before we begin discussing them, let's talk about what nicotine does to your brain.

The Devil You Know.

Upon ingestion, specifically via aromatic smoke inhalation, Nicotine rapidly passes the blood-brain barrier in between 10-30 seconds, beginning a very fast-acting neurochemical set of chain-reactions which are variable depending on the amount of nicotine crossing the blood-brain barrier. It then binds (it is an “agonist”) to the nAChRs or Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, a smaller subset of the Acetylcholine receptors that tropane related alkaloids tend to affect.

In small doses, nicotine acts as a Central Nervous System stimulant; in larger doses it acts as a Central Nervous System depressant. These two differences reflect the two major ways in which it begins to affect the smoker; when stressed, smokers tend to take rapid, short puffs which pushes minor amounts of nicotine across the blood brain barrier and the as a byproduct of the CNS stimulation Serotonin is released. As they relax, they tend take longer and heavier drags on their cigarettes, during which CNS depression occurs. It is during this stage that Dopamine levels rise, leading to a sense of deep relaxation, facilitating pain-relief, and all of those typical “awesome!” affects of Dopamine are felt.

The fact that nicotine can affect both of these rather potent neurochemicals depending on dosage is generally supposed to explain why it is so addictive.

The primary problem with this is that the addictive properties of tobacco smoke are not simply due to the presence of Nicotine. In fact, we can go so far as to suggest that the Dopaminergic activity in the brain is partially due two Nicotine becoming far more effective due to the MAOIs present in the Tobacco plant.

The Devil You Don't.

Norharman (affects MAO-B) and Harman (affects MAO-A) are both Beta-carbolines, a set of chemical alkaloids that affect the MAOs. They belong to the Harmala family, which is best known for being the chemical catalysts that allow DMT to be ingested orally and pass the blood-brain barrier, becoming psychoactive. The short jist of this is that these compounds allow for Dopamine and Serotonin to remain in substantially high quanitities and trigger chain reactions in the brain that normally do not occur because MAOs degrade both neurochemicals, and reinforce the blood-brain barrier. (Keeping you from tripping balls, as it were, off your every-day food stuffs.)

It is highly likely – in fact, with what I've just told you it's almost assured – that these two MAOIs increase the effectiveness of Nicotine. When studied simply by itself, Nicotine has been found to not be terribly addictive; when consumed or smoked via the Tobacco leaf (or chews or snuffs), the addictive properties become far more pronounced and as such it has been compared to addiction to cocaine or heroin. This is largely due to the way it allows nicotine to affect the Serotonin and Dopaminergic activities in the brain, thus targeting pleasure and relaxation centers and (as I said earlier) greatly increasing the effectiveness of the other psychoactive Alkaloid.

As an aside, Norharman and Harman are also found in dried raisins (higher concentrations apparently occurring in sun dried raisins), as well as coffee... This explains the Dopaminergic activity that coffee tends to stimulate, amongst other things, and why it's sometimes discussed as a natural pain killer. Coffee concentrations of both alkaloids are, however, vastly smaller than either in raisins or tobacco.

Jaguar-complexes, ritual usages, and ambivalence amongst the Tucano.

A lengthy discussion on the use of Tobacco by South American cultures (this entry will only discuss the Tucano) is, at least presently, out of the question for me. However, I consider the following article from Entheology to be more-than-fair in its depiction of use from my reading of other sources (some of which the author happens to list). As such, I'll sample a few choice bits.

“The Tucano either smoke or snuff tobacco with smoking being the primary method of ingestion. The Tucano are famed for their “giant” ritual cigars and use intricately carved cigar holders that look like large tuning forks. They also sit upon a ceremonial bench while smoking. “Besides offering comfort and rest, the stool provides the smoking man who occupies it a self- and world-centered space for meditative communication with the metaphysical powers. Thus, tobacco, cigar holder, and ceremonial bench function as complementary means of conveyance to the otherworld” (Wilbert 1987, 93).”

“There are several other ways the Tucano use tobacco. It is very common to use the smoke for purification, also tobacco smoke is also is inhaled to heighten the hallucinatory effects of ayahuasca. Sorcerers use tobacco and ritual cigars for magic against their enemies. As for the healer, tobacco is “the foundation of shamanism which is, in effect, the power to cross between cosmic layers” (Hugh-Jones 1979, 231).”

I shall take a moment to make an aside; the two compounds discussed above are related to Harmine and Harmaline (e.g. they all belong to the Harmala family of alkaloids) which are found in the Banisteriopsis caapi, one of the primary ingredients in Ayahuasca (the other ingredient containing large amounts of DMT, which I've discussed before). It is quite easy to see why similar alkaloids from the same family would have the ability to “heighten” the effects of Yage/Ayahausca.

“The shaman’s cigar is said to be his ‘eye’ which he sees the mystical causes of illness: the rising smoke is associated with his travel to the Thunders, the Sun and other inhabitants of the upper cosmos. The special power of the shamans is due to their ability to let the soul leave the body, and thus tobacco is associated with both the independent existence of the soul and the ‘direct line’ to the ancestral forces. Ordinary men are not as powerful as shamans in this respect, but they are all capable of minor shamanic acts and of soul-change during ritual. Thus, tobacco is associated with the shamanic ability of men as opposed to women (Hugh-Jones 1979, 231).”
“Another aspect I would like to examine, is the jaguar complex. The Tucano and Yanomamo have very different views of the jaguar. For the Tucano, it is a mystical creature not always to be trusted, but always admired for its skill and cunning. The jaguar is viewed as the closest forest counterpart to man (Hugh-Jones 1979, 84). For the shaman though, the jaguar is viewed entirely different. The shaman is an intermediary between this world and the other world, and between human and non human beings (Jackson 1983, 196). According to Jackson (1983, 196-197):

“People are always wary of a shaman, even those not suspected of being evil… In the Vaup├ęs, such a role is dangerous because of ritual power and knowledge are always dangerous. Thus a renegade shaman can forsake all feelings of responsibility to human society and become destructive; when this happens shamans actually turns into a predatory animal spirit. In most, if not all, Tucanoan languages the word for shaman is synonymous with the word for a class of predatory animals including the jaguar (yai).”

The shaman-jaguar transformation is also important for good shamans as well as for many other spiritual components of shamanic work. “If one concept cutting across geographic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries among South American Indians can be singled out, it is that of the qualitative identity between jaguars and shamans and accordingly to their interchangeability of form” (Wilbert 1987, 193). “A closer affinity between jaguar and shaman is hardly conceivable, and tobacco, like other mind-altering drugs, is an important agent of the jaguar shaman transformation complex of South America” (Wilbert 1987, 194). Along with Banisteriopsis caapi, which induces visions filled with jaguars and anacondas, tobacco is used to transform the shaman into a were-jaguar to seek out food, healing plants, or perform sorcery on enemies.”

This ambivalence displayed, as well as the “Jaguar-complex” that is encountered may well sound very familiar for smokers who take perhaps too much fondness in nicotines ability to act as a CNS stimulant; regardless, if you want to read more, I certainly encourage it.

I will most likely discuss this subject again in the future, some long time after I've finished writing about the three major secondary metabolites found in Mandrake. But until then, I'll leave this entry up.

* Writing this while sleep deprived unfortunately lead to seeing some terrible typos. I apologize; I'll give it another re-read and edit after I wake up, as obnoxious as that may be.


Brother Christopher said...

neat! I love your entries about plants

Rose Weaver said...

*sips coffee and takes another puff*

Most excellent entry! My Panther is also very pleased.