How Smoking Depletes Your Body of Vitamins

More Free Radicals and Fewer Antioxidants

Man smoking a cigarette
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As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

Cigarette smoke is a toxic blend of poisons and cancer-causing chemicals that put virtually every internal organ at risk when people smoke. It creates an abundance of free radicals that can cause cellular damage and depletes essential vitamins and minerals in our bodies.

Many people wonder whether there are vitamins for smokers that could help fight this free radical damage. This article discusses how smoking depletes vitamins in the body and whether taking vitamins might help repair this damage.

Smoking and Free Radicals

Cigarette smoking speeds up the production of free radicals in your body. These free radicals cause damage to cells that can eventually lead to cancer and other diseases.

What Are Free Radicals?

Free radicals are atoms or molecules that have an odd number of electrons. Molecules do not like to be in this state (they are much happier when they have a pair of electrons), which makes them very unstable.

Even without smoking, your body is exposed to free radicals every day. These free radicals are generated by toxins in the environment and the normal metabolic processes used to digest the food you eat.

Free radicals travel around the body looking for an electron to grab from other molecules so that they can stabilize their energy. Depending on where they find the electron they need, they can wreak havoc on healthy tissue.

When they interfere with collagen, they cause the notorious "smoker's wrinkles." When they encounter blood vessels, they can damage the blood vessel lining, setting the stage for a heart attack.

And when the source becomes DNA in the cells of our bodies, damage (gene mutations) may occur. It is this accumulation of gene mutations that is responsible for the formation of a cancer cell.

How Antioxidants Fight Free Radicals

Put together, the combination of increased free radicals caused by smoking and a reduced supply of vitamins also due to smoking packs a double wallop. Free radicals damage the body, while smoking depletes essential vitamins that help combat free radicals. This combination leaves your body vulnerable to damage.

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.

Vitamins also act as a defense against free radicals. They help to neutralize free radicals to prevent or minimize damage. Smoking depletes these shields, making it easier for free radicals to damage the body.

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.

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.

Essential Vitamins for Smokers

It is important to recognize that vitamins are not enough to prevent or reverse the damage from free radicals and the other harmful effects of smoking. However, making sure you are getting certain important vitamins may have some beneficial effects.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, the body is unable to store water-soluble vitamins and must get them daily from the foods we eat.

Vitamin C is needed to make collagen, a protein responsible for growing and repairing cells that produce everything from skin to muscle and from ligaments to blood vessels. It helps keep the immune system strong and reduces blood sugar. It also has the unique quality of being able to help with the regeneration of other antioxidants such as vitamin E.

Studies have found that people who smoke, and those who are exposed to secondhand smoke, have reduced amounts of vitamin C in their bodies. It's thought that smokers require 35 mg more vitamin C daily than non-smokers.

Unfortunately, simply taking a supplement isn't the answer, at least with regard to heart disease. People who took a vitamin C supplement still experienced damage to blood vessels. A 2017 study found that a diet high in vitamin C reduced lung cancer risk in female smokers by 26%.

Food Sources of Vitamin C

Vitamin C can be found in all fruits and vegetables. Excellent sources of vitamin C include:

  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Citrus fruits
  • Blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries
  • Cranberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Potatoes (both sweet and white)

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is fat-soluble and is stored in the liver and fat deposits in the body. This means that you do not necessarily need to get vitamin E in your diet every day, but dietary intake is important to maintain your body's supply. Vitamin E is an important nutrient that helps build red blood cells and bolsters the immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria.

Researchers also suspect that vitamin E plays a role in protecting against cancer, heart disease, and aging. Vitamin E is one of the first lines of defense against the free radical damage to the lungs caused by breathing in air pollution and cigarette smoke. Vitamin E is an antioxidant powerhouse.​

Like vitamin C, smoking appears to increase vitamin E requirements. Unfortunately, research has not confirmed that vitamin E supplements actually help to prevent cancer, heart disease, or symptoms of aging. In fact, taking more than 400 IU per day of vitamin E may increase certain kinds of heart disease, and increase overall mortality.

There are arguments that the particular type of vitamin E is important, but at the current time, it's best to obtain your vitamin E by eating a sensible diet. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin E is 15mg per day for anyone over the age of 14.

Food Sources of Vitamin E

  • Nuts, such as hazelnuts, peanuts, and almonds
  • Vegetable oils, such as safflower, wheat germ, corn, and sunflower
  • Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli
  • Seeds, such as sunflower seeds
  • Breakfast cereals that have been fortified with vitamin E

Other Antioxidants

Some research also suggests that other antioxidants, such as fish oil and Concord grape juice, might have some benefits for people who smoke. One study found that fish oil supplementation might help protect against DNA damage caused by cigarette smoking. Another study found that the flavonoids found in Concord grape juice may reduce smoking-induced inflammation.

A 2018 study found that high-dose omega-3 fatty acid supplementation could potentially help reduce cigarette cravings and oxidative stress.

Summary

Cigarette smoking increases the generation of free radicals in the body, which can predispose to tissue damage resulting in conditions from heart disease to cancer. Antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E are part of our body's defense system, acting to neutralize free radicals before they can do their damage.

Sadly, these vitamins are also depleted in people who smoke, resulting in a bad combination—more free radicals with fewer antioxidants to fight them. It appears that dietary sources are preferred over supplements, with some studies on supplements of both vitamins showing little effect.

A Word From Verywell

If you smoke, it's never too late to quit, and your body can begin to repair itself beginning immediately. While the risk of lung cancer and some other cancers remains elevated for life (though it decreases substantially by 10 years after quitting), your risk of other smoking-related diseases such as heart disease drops quite rapidly.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What vitamins are good for smokers?

    While no vitamin can prevent or eliminate the hazards of smoking, getting enough vitamins C, vitamin E, and other antioxidants may be helpful.

  • Is beta carotene safe for smokers?

    Some research has found that taking large amounts of beta-carotene supplements may increase the risk of lung cancer in individuals who have smoked or who have had asbestos exposure. However, getting beta-carotene from dietary sources is safe and may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.

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