The negative impacts of smoking
There are over 5000 different chemicals in each cigarette — more than 70 of which are carcinogens with the potential to cause cancer.2 The most addictive of these chemicals is nicotine. Nicotine causes a surge of adrenaline that triggers a rise in heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, it can be problematic for people with existing heart disease. If you are a smoker, you also have a much greater risk of heart disease because tobacco smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, meaning your heart has to pump harder to supply your body with the oxygen it needs.3 This can damage the lining of your arteries, contributing to atherosclerosis (the build-up of fatty material which narrows the arteries), making your blood more likely to clot.4
How smoking affects your ability to absorb nutrients
Alongside these better-known risks, smoking also inhibits your ability to absorb essential nutrients necessary for maintaining a healthy heart. Many of the gases and tar particles emitted in cigarette smoke are oxidants and prooxidants which are capable of producing free radicals — harmful particles that can damage cells.5 For example, cadmium (one metal found in cigarettes) decreases the availability of selenium, a mineral thought to protect tissues from oxidative damage.4, 6 In addition, it antagonises zinc levels, one nutrient thought to reduce atherosclerosis.4, 5
One of the main ways that smoking can affect our nutritional health is through the impact it has on our vitamin C absorption. Nutritional therapist Judy Watson explains that "In protecting the heart from disease, vitamin C plays an important role. It is essential for the production of collagen, which keeps arteries flexible so that circulation can continue unhindered. If you don’t have enough vitamin C you will be at greater risk of your arteries hardening, slowing blood flow". Blood also becomes thicker with a vitamin C deficiency, which increases the risk of a blood clot. "Research shows that every cigarette depletes vitamin C stores by 25mg – so this is one vitamin that smokers definitely need to pack into their diets. Blueberries and kiwis are great sources."
According to one survey, smokers are also less likely than non-smokers to eat fruit and vegetables, especially those that are high in vitamin C and beta-carotene.4 This places them at an even bigger risk of nutrient deficiency. "Levels of vitamin E, thought to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, may also be reduced by the free radical damage from smoking," Judy explains.6 Research suggests this is due to the way that vitamins C and E work together. One study from Oregon University found that smokers who took a vitamin C supplement were less likely to be deficient in vitamin E. Tobacco constituents have also been shown to reduce several of the vitamins in the B that help to fight cardiovascular disease, contributing to another risk factor for heart disease.4, 7, 8
How to improve your nutrient absorption
Undoubtedly, the best thing that a smoker can do to reduce their nutrient deficiencies is to quit smoking altogether. The NHS has services to help make quitting easier, and nicotine replacements might also be an option to consider. However, while you are on the journey to quitting, there are a few steps you can take to improve your nutrient intake along the way.
Change your diet
Ensuring that your diet is packed with vitamins is one easy way to tackle deficiency. Keep your diet rich in fruit and vegetables to keep your vitamin C levels topped up. "It’s also important to support your liver so that its detoxification process can work effectively, thus enabling the efficient removal of cholesterol and the better metabolism of heart-healthy nutrients," explains Judy. Green leafy vegetables and turmeric can help with this, so why not try a blended greens smoothie or swap your usual cup of tea for a turmeric latte? What’s more, integrating more fruit and vegetables into your diet can help with the quitting process. One USA study found that fruit, vegetables and cheese can all make cigarettes taste terrible – so planning meals around these foods can both increase your vitamin levels and also help you to quit.4
In one study, researchers recommended that smokers consider vitamin supplements in order to remedy the effects of smoking upon their nutrient absorption.4 The main vitamins to tailor your supplementation around include vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium. Alternatively, you might consider a multivitamin in order to take in each nutrient in a single caplet.
Maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle takes on added importance if you are a smoker, but with these simple steps, managing it should become a little easier.
For more information on how to keep your heart healthy, see our heart health hub.
1Health risks of smoking,NHS Guidelines
2What's in a cigarette,Cancer Research UK
3Smoking,British Heart Foundationn
4Preston, AM (1991). Cigarette smoking – nutritional implications, NCBI
5Klaus K. A. Witte, MB, MRCP, Andrew L. Clark, MA, MD, MRCP, John G. F. Cleland, MD, FRCP, FESC, FACC (2001). Chronic Heart Failure and Micronutrients, Journal of American College of Cardiology Vol. 37
6(2001). Volume 131, Issue 2,The Journal of Nutrition
7Cui R1, Iso H, Date C, Kikuchi S, Tamakoshi A (2010). Dietary folate and vitamin b6 and B12 intake in relation to mortality from cardiovascular diseases: Japan collaborative cohort study,Japan Collaborative Cohort Study Group
8Paul Ganguly and Sreyoshi Fatima Alam (2015). Role of homocysteine in the development of cardiovascular disease,NCBI