Smoking is a highly addictive habit that has devastating consequences. Not only does it precipitate lung and pancreatic cancer, heart disease, and a three-fold increase in age-related macular degeneration (AMD, the leading cause of blindness), it all too often results in sudden cardiac death.
After more than 40 years as a clinical cardiologist, I've learned firsthand of the cardinal relationship between smoking and disease.
Smoking and the Heart
Researchers have identified approximately 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke that can cause free radical damage to the blood vessels. These chemicals also increase the stickiness of blood, upping a person's chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
We’ve also learned that nicotine and other chemicals in cigarette smoke provoke high blood pressure (nicotine is a potent vasoconstrictor) and damage the linings of blood vessel walls. But the alarming number of compounds in cigarettes and cigarette smoke has made it a virtual research nightmare to isolate the cause of smoking-related disease.
We do know, however, that excessive buildup of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which occurs in smokers, not only damages small blood vessels of the eye and heart, it robs the body of oxygen. A smoker might just as well hook himself up to the tailpipe of his car!
Finally, smoking also intensifies the oxidation of LDL and, remember, this sets the works in motion for clogged arteries. Further, research has proven that smoking severely depletes essential nutrients like vitamins C and E, both of which are needed to prevent free radical stress in blood vessels.
Kicking the Smoking Habit
When it comes to smoking, I believe that biting the bullet and just saying "no" is the best way out. To get started, I suggest you prepare to quit one week ahead of time. Here are a few tips to help you lay the groundwork:
- Remove all smoking-related items from your house, car, and office—ashtrays, lighters, packs of cigarettes, and butts.
- Only smoke outside! This means all the time. No smoking in the car.
- Do not allow anyone to smoke in your house, car, or office.
- Start a daily exercise program—whether it's walking, swimming, biking, or following along with an exercise video.
- Tell everyone you know you are quitting.
- Consider quitting during a break from your usual routine (vacation/over the weekend).
- Buy a low-tar nicotine cigarette to help wean you off more addictive cigarettes.
- Talk to your doctor about low-nicotine patches. My patients have had success with patches. But please don't smoke while using these patches.
Tips to Stay on the Smoke-Free Track
Many people start and stop smoking several times over in a lifetime. I’ve found that if you can quit for three straight days, the cravings for a cigarette get easier, and your risk of heart disease is cut in half, too.
The following tips will help you get through those three days…and any other difficult days that may come along.
- At bedtime, take the money that you would have spent on cigarettes that day and toss it in a big glass jar. At the end of the first week, gather it up and spend it on yourself. See a movie or splurge on some small thing you've been wanting. Then save for longer time periods and make the rewards bigger!
- Take a few "timeouts" (5–10 minutes) to be still and focus on your breathing, inhaling and exhaling slowly and rhythmically like you did when you smoked.
- Avoid the locations of your smoking breaks, or favorite entertainment spots.
- Eat celery or carrot sticks, or chew sugarless gum in the evening, or after a meal.
- Drink 10 glasses of water daily. Add a slice of lemon or lime to enhance the flavor. Citrus may eliminate the urge to pick up a cigarette.
- Commit to yourself and to a loved one to stop smoking. Ask for help if you need it, and don't start smoking again!