Time to quit? How cigarettes can ruin your blood flow
It’s well known that smoking can increase a person’s risk of cancer and cause damage to the lungs. But did you know that smoking can cause serious damage to the circulatory system – the important arteries, veins and capillaries that deliver essential nutrients to your organs and muscles?
Let’s look at how smoking impacts this important system and the symptoms you may experience if affected.
The cardiovascular system
Our cardiovascular system is a network of arteries, veins and capillaries that allow blood pumped by our heart to deliver essential nutrients to our organs and muscles, as well as remove harmful toxins such as CO2 from our bodies. Any blockage or interruption to this blood flow can have serious health consequences, so it’s important to keep our circulation system in tip-top condition.
How cigarettes harm our circulation
The chemicals in cigarettes can damage the blood vessels in our circulatory system in a number of ways.
The chemicals in cigarettes also damage the lining of the arteries. This damage can cause fatty deposits to build up on the artery walls (atherosclerosis)3. Such deposits increase the risk of heart attack by narrowing important arteries to the heart. The same deposits can impact other areas of the body, causing a condition called peripheral arterial disease (PAD), which occurs when circulation to the extremities – usually the legs and feet – is impaired, which can cause leg pain.
Cigarettes contain thousands of chemicals, many of which are known to be harmful to our bodies, these include nicotine and carbon monoxide. These chemicals have a harmful impact on the cells lining the blood vessels by activating a type of white blood cell called neutrophils1, which cause inflammation. When blood vessels are inflamed, there is less room for the blood to flow freely.
The chemical nicotine can also have a negative effect on blood flow, as it causes blood vessels to shrink4. Over time, the pressure on blood vessels causes them to lose elasticity and get stiff. Again, this can affect the body’s ability to circulate blood as it should.
Chemicals in cigarettes may also cause your blood to become more ‘sticky.’5 Not only does this make it harder for the heart to pump it around the body, but stickier blood also puts you at higher risk of forming blood clots. The thicker, sticky blood can also cause damage to your blood vessels.
Impact to cholesterol
Smoking has a detrimental effect on the cholesterol levels2 in your blood. Not only does it worsen the impact of ‘bad’ cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein - LDL) on the body and increases its toxicity, it also reduces the level of the ‘good’ stuff (high-density lipoprotein – HDL) in your blood stream – this type of cholesterol protects against heart disease.
The restrictions to blood flow caused by smoking can affect our bodies in a number of ways.
If your blood flow is compromised, your heart will be forced to work harder to keep everything moving. This will lead to an increased heart-rate6 and may cause your heart to enlarge. Both of these factors put additional strain on this life-giving muscle, raising your risk of heart problems.
The fact that blood has to try to force its way through narrow, less flexible vessels can also mean that your blood pressure will rise. High blood pressure puts strain on organs such as your liver, kidneys and even your brain.
Despite your heart’s best efforts, some of the muscles in your extremities – the parts of your body furthest from your heart such as your fingers and toes – may not receive all the nutrients and oxygen they need. This may lead to symptoms such as tingling and loss of sensation.
Impaired blood-flow can also cause a number of circulatory diseases, including Peripheral Arterial Disease7 which can lead to tissue death and amputation, usually of the toes.
Finally, smoking increases your risk of blood clots, which may cut off the blood supply to major organs entirely, leading to heart attack or stroke.
Time to quit?
If you’re a smoker, you may be wondering whether damage to your circulatory system is permanent.
The good news is that quitting cigarettes can lead to rapid improvements in your health. Smokers who kick the habit should see improvement in their circulation within 2-12 weeks8 of stopping, meaning some of the uncomfortable symptoms will be relieved quickly, and your risk of serious disease will reduce.
Your health will continue to improve the longer you are smoke free. After a year, your heart-attack risk drops significantly. After five, your risk of having a stroke is roughly the same as that of someone who’s never smoked a cigarette.
This addictive habit can cause many worrying side-effects and cause serious damage to your health. Quitting isn’t easy. But the improvements in your health from ditching the cigarettes should make the effort more than worthwhile.
- Missing link between smoking and inflammation identified, ScienceDaily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161031110809.htm
- Smoking plus high cholesterol ups heart attack risk, https://www.everydayhealth.com/high-cholesterol/living-with/the-cholesterol-smoking-connection/
- Smoking and heart disease - Better Health Channel, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/smoking-and-heart-disease#smoking-damages-the-heart-and-blood-vessels
- How Tobacco Affects the Heart and Blood Vessels, https://www.abiomed.com/patients-and-caregivers/blog/how-tobacco-affects-the-heart-and-blood-vessels
- How Smoking Affects Your Body | Parkview Health, https://www.parkview.com/well-being/smoking-cessation/how-smoking-affects-the-body
- Smoking Effects on Your Body, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/smoking-effects-on-your-body
- Peripheral Vascular Disease, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/peripheral-vascular-disease
- Quit smoking - NHS (www.nhs.uk), https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/quit-smoking/
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