Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in today’s society, as it includes both heart attacks and strokes. Most people automatically presume that high cholesterol from poor food choices is the leading cause of CVD, but in actual fact, there are many risk factors that contribute. Smoking is one such factor that is often associated with other diseases such as cancer and overlooked when discussing CVD. Unfortunately, a smoker’s risk of developing CVD is actually 3-5 times higher than a non-smoker.
When a person is smoking, toxins enter the blood through inhalation. Many of these toxins contain free radicals that are carried in the bloodstream on low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol molecules, where they damage the lining of arteries. This also damages the feedback mechanisms in the liver that controls the amount of cholesterol manufactured, resulting in increased production. Since the chemicals travel on cholesterol, we can see that if our cholesterol levels are higher and we are a smoker, our risk multiples. Plaque begins to form at the site of damage by compiling layers of fibrin, calcium and cholesterol in order to protect and heal. When the damage heals, the plaque breaks off and everything should be normal. However, when a person is exposed to smoke frequently, the damage multiplies faster than it heals; creating a build-up in the arteries and a weakened blood flow to the heart, which in turn can cause a heart attack. In addition to creating damage to vessels, smoking can temporarily increase blood pressure as a result of nicotine constricting the vessels. Two other independent factors that can lead to CVD as a result of smoking are the increased platelet aggregation and elevated fibrinogen levels.
The number one recommendation for a smoker who wishes to eliminate the risk of developing CVD is to stop smoking. However, there are some dietary/supplemental aspects which may help to reduce or control their risk. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and can help to protect against the free radical damage to LDL cholesterol. This wonderful vitamin also prevents and dissolves blood clots, improves formation of collateral blood vessels, normalizes blood viscosity and reduces platelet stickiness. Supplementing with 400-800IU of vitamin E would be a dosage recommended to treat heart disease, thought it is possible, however, to get copious amounts of vitamin E through dietary choices. Eating meals that consist of brown rice, dark green vegetables, eggs, cold pressed vegetable oils, legumes, milk, nuts, oatmeal, wheat germ, whole grains, sunflower seeds, olives, or papaya will provide higher amounts of Vitamin E.
Eating foods rich in Vitamin C will definitely be beneficial for a smoker to consume. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that will offer protection against the oxidation of LDL cholesterol by binding to and eliminating free radicals. Vitamin C helps to raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and reduce LDL cholesterol levels. It has also been shown to lower blood pressure, strengthen the structure of the arteries, and stop platelet aggregation; all factors increased by smoking. Vitamin C is also beneficial in eliminating heavy metals from our body such as the cadmium found in cigarettes. In addition, vitamin C also ensures vitamin E is able to be regenerated once it is oxidized, so adequate intake will in fact increase the benefits of Vitamin E. Eating 4-6 servings of whole fruits and vegetables will help to increase vitamin C levels in the body. Some foods that are higher in vitamin C include broccoli, brussel sprouts, parsley, citrus fruit, cantaloupe, collards, green and red peppers, kale, kiwi, mustard greens, berries (strawberry, raspberry, and cranberry), cabbage, watermelon, tomatoes, cherries, sprouted beans and seeds. If eating higher amounts of fruits and vegetables is not obtainable, taking vitamin C supplementation of 500-2000mg split throughout the day would be beneficial.
Consuming a diet high in essential fatty acids (EFAs), specifically omega 3 fatty acids, will help to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They lower LDL cholesterol levels and stop platelet aggregation, as well as lower fibrinogen levels and blood pressure; all factors that are enhanced through smoking. Consuming one tablespoon of organic flaxseed oil or ground flaxseed daily is an option for getting a good dose of omega 3. Whole foods, especially fish, vegetables and nuts are also high in EFAs. Additionally, salmon, scallops, cauliflower, cabbage, walnuts and cloves are very good sources followed by halibut, shrimp, cod, tuna, soy beans, brussel sprouts and leafy greens such as kale and collard greens. It is also best to avoid hydrogenated oils and saturated fats as they do not have a positive effect on the body.
It is important that we consider smoking a key contributor to the onset of Cardiovascular Disease. It is equally important that we realize the significance nutrition plays in the rapid development of the disease. In addition to suggesting foods rich in Vitamins C, E and essential fatty acids, promoting a smoke-free environment and helping individuals to quit is an important area where Holistic Nutritionists can step in. After all, getting the correct knowledge is half the battle.