Cigarette Smoking and Free Radicals
Free radicals are atoms or molecules that have an odd number of electrons. This makes them unstable, and they travel around the body looking for an electron to grab from other molecules so that they can stabilize. This causes a chain reaction of damage, and can wreak havoc on healthy tissue and even DNA.
The body's defense system uses antioxidants to combat the damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants are molecules that are able to donate electrons to free radicals without losing their own molecular integrity. In this way, they are able to slow the destructive impact that free radicals have on the body.
Science has identified upwards of 4,000 antioxidants, some of which are produced in the human body naturally. Others come from the foods we eat.
Two important antioxidant champions are vitamin C and vitamin E. They help fight off inflammation and toxins in the body and are critical for a healthy immune system.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. The body cannot store it, so we must get it daily from the foods we eat.
Vitamin C is needed to make collagen, a protein responsible for growing and repairing cells in our bodies that produce everything from skin to muscle, ligaments and blood vessels. It helps keep our immune system strong and reduces blood sugar. It also has the unique quality of being able to help regenerate vitamin E.
Vitamin C can be found in all fruits and vegetables.
Excellent sources of vitamin C include:
- citrus fruits
- blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries
- broccoli, brussel sprouts
- sweet and white potatoes
Vitamin E is fat-soluble, and is stored in the liver and fat deposits in the body. Vitamin E is an important nutrient that helps us build red blood cells and bolster the immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria.
Researchers also suspect that vitamin E plays a role in protecting us from cancer, heart disease and aging. Vitamin E is one of the first lines of defense against the free radical damage to the lungs when we breathe in air pollution and cigarette smoke. Vitamin E is an antioxidant powerhouse.
Unfortunately, research has not confirmed that vitamin E supplements actually help to prevent cancer, heart disease, or symptoms of aging. In fact, studies suggest that taking more than 400 IU per day of vitamin E may increase certain kinds of heart disease, and increase overall mortality. It is best to obtain your vitamin E by eating a sensible diet.
Food sources of vitamin E include:
- nuts, such as hazelnuts, peanuts and almonds
- vegetable oils, such as safflower, wheat germ, corn, sunflower
- green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli
- seeds, such as sunflower seeds
- breakfast cereals that have been fortified with vitamin E
When there are too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants in the body, a condition known as oxidative stress occurs.
This is thought to play a part in the development of a whole host of diseases, including cancer and heart disease.
Cigarette Smoking and Vitamin Depletion
Smokers lose vitamin C from the bloodstream, and vitamin E from tissues in the body. Additionally, the regenerative effect of vitamin C on vitamin E suffers when cigarette smoke is introduced into the body.
Cigarette smoking speeds up the production of free radicals, and at the same time, depletes levels of important antioxidants in the body. Not a good situation for smokers, who especially need the health benefits of antioxidants.
The Bottom Line
Cigarette smoke is an extremely toxic brew of over 4,000 chemical compounds. Some of those chemicals are poisonous, cancer-causing or both, and include things like:
- benzene (used in pesticides and gasoline)
- formaldehyde (used to preserve corpses)
- hydrogen cyanide (gassing agent used in Nazi Germany)
- carbon monoxide (in car exhaust and is deadly in large amounts)
- arsenic (used in rat poison)
While scientists still have much to learn about the composition of cigarette smoke, we do know there are links between smoking and vitamin depletion, and that this compromises our body's ability to manage the toxins in cigarette smoke. This may predispose us to the diseases that follow tobacco use.
If You're Still Smoking
There is no time like the present to put an end to an addiction that will kill you, given the chance.
Use the resources below to help you prepare for the quit program that will last you a lifetime.
World Health Organization. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. Free Radicals and Antioxidants in Health and Disease. http://www.emro.who.int/publications/emhj/0402/21.htm. Accessed July, 2011.
National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin E. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitamine/. Accessed July, 2011.
National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin C. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-QuickFacts/. Accessed July, 2011.
University of Maryland Medical Center. Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid). http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/vitamin-c-000339.htm. Accessed July, 2011.
Oregon State University. Vitamin E Loss Through Smoking Increases Health Risks. http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2005/apr/vitamin-e-loss-through-smoking-increases-health-risks. Accessed July, 2011.