Cigarette smoking is a public health problem that’s responsible for preventable chronic diseases and premature death. Many of the diseases are common knowledge from damaging lungs (causing asthma and pneumonia) or cellular changes leading to lung cancers; others include cardiovascular injury causing heart attacks and heart failure.
But, some effects are less well known, like how cigarette smoking depletes vitamins in your body. Smokers may experience deficiencies in important micronutrients, including vitamins C, E, B6, B12, beta carotene, and folic acid. Such nutritional deficiencies can increase the risk of diseases. Vitamins may help the lungs repair and also provide other positive health benefits.
How does smoking deplete your body of vitamins?
Cigarette smoke contains about 7,000 chemicals (including anatabine, nornicotine, anabaseine, and nicotine), and it is an abundant source of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are both toxic and are rarely helpful in your body. When there’s excessive accumulation of free radicals in your body, it often leads to a state of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a condition that occurs when your body cannot destroy the excess free radicals, and it is responsible for most chronic diseases such as cancers and autoimmune, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Smoking often initiate oxidative stress by generating free radicals in your body or activating inflammatory cells. One puff of cigarette exposes you to quadrillions of free radicals.
Naturally, your body has a defense mechanism against oxidative stress—the antioxidants, either produced in your body or gotten externally from micronutrients in your foods or supplements. Smoking depletes the body of important micronutrients and antioxidants. Smokers often have lower levels of vitamins C and E, a-carotene, beta carotene, and cryptoxanthin, which may play a role in certain cigarette-related health problems.
The substances in cigarette smoke reduce levels of available antioxidants in the blood. For example, cadmium in tobacco decreases the levels of selenium and zinc, an important mineral needed in the production of an antioxidant—superoxide dismutase. Often, smokers are less likely to follow a healthy balanced diet—they consume less fiber, fruits, and vegetables and—more alcohol and meat. All these factors contribute to the depletion of vitamins and antioxidants.
Vitamins for smokers may be recommended by your healthcare provider to help decrease the damage that follows oxidative stress. Even if you quit smoking, vitamins are another positive step to improve your health.
5 supplements and vitamins for smokers
It is important to emphasize that vitamins cannot eliminate the health problems caused by smoking. However, because smoking depletes some important vitamins that also double as antioxidants, it’s good to supplement deficient vitamins.
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and an antioxidant. It strengthens the immune system and has protective effects against oxidative stress in your body. “Vitamin C has more benefits than just immune support,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, a consultant with BalanceOne Supplements. “Studies show it can also improve and protect lung health. Its antioxidant properties help it fight off infection/free radicals that could threaten lung health.”
Vitamin C is one of the best vitamins for lung repair, and it is also beneficial in treating respiratory problems such as the common cold, influenza, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to experts, smokers often have lower levels of vitamin C because it’s used up quickly from increased demand and reduced vitamin C absorption by your digestive system. Hence, the requirement of vitamin C for smokers is increased by 35 mg per day to 125 mg daily for men and 110 mg daily for women.
“Vitamin C may be protective against harmful free radicals looking to damage the lungs,” says Brittany Lubeck, a registered dietitian in California. “In an animal study, mice exposed to smoke and developed emphysema were given vitamin C in either low doses or sufficient doses. The mice given adequate doses of vitamin C had decreased oxidative stress and even restored lung function.”
In addition to supplementing, consider incorporating vitamin C-rich foods into your diet such as oranges, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries, and white potatoes.
2. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is also considered one of the best vitamins for a smokers’ lungs. It is regarded as the first line of defense against free radicals. A study published by researchers at Oregon State University suggests that people who smoke may require higher levels of vitamin E, compared to non-smokers, because vitamin E is often used up more quickly. It drops 13% faster in smokers than in non-smokers, which leaves them at risk of losing its protective effects and prone to diseases like cancers.
What’s more, there’s a linked relationship between vitamin C and E—because both vitamins have related antioxidant roles in your body, so if you do not have sufficient vitamin C, vitamin E is used up even more quickly. It’s important to constantly keep vitamin E levels up, because according to the Oregon State University researchers, it cannot be taken after the fact to repair the damage caused by free radicals.
Food sources of vitamin E include avocados, peanuts, beet or collard greens, soybean oil, and Swiss chard.
3. Vitamin D
“Vitamin D has also been researched for its anti-inflammatory properties and because it is thought to support the immune system of smokers,” Lubeck explains. “Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to decreased lung function in smokers. A deficiency in vitamin D may also cause the function of a smoker’s lungs to decrease more rapidly.”
Sunshine, oily fish, liver, egg yolks, and fortified foods (such as cereals) are good sources of vitamin D.
4. B vitamins
Smokers are likely to have lower levels of vitamin B6, B12, and B9 (folate). When you do not have enough of these B vitamins, it raises the levels of homocysteine. Elevated homocysteine levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Homocysteine causes inflammation and plaque in the arteries, which reduces blood flow to the heart muscle itself. If you’re looking to eat more vitamin B-rich-foods, the following are great choices: leafy green vegetables, kidney beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, salmon, tuna fish, low-fat milk, and fortified cereals.
“Aside from vitamins, minerals may also be beneficial for lung repair in those wanting to quit smoking,” Lubeck says. “For example, imbalanced levels of zinc have an impact on the development of certain lung diseases. Zinc is thought to help reduce the amount of cadmium (a toxin in cigarettes) in the body. In this way, zinc may play a protective role in the lungs of smokers and those looking to quit smoking.”
Some of the richest sources of zinc are oysters, kidney beans, whole grains, breakfast cereals, pumpkin seeds, and yogurt.
What vitamins should a smoker avoid?
Beta carotene (B-carotene) is an antioxidant and a great source of vitamin A in your body. However, smokers are generally advised to avoid beta-carotene and any supplements that contain it. A 2019 study published in the Nicotine and Tobacco Research Journal that included 29,133 male smokers between 50–69 years old suggested that B-carotene supplementation increases the chances of lung cancers in people who smoke, irrespective of the amount of tar or nicotine content in the cigarette.
Thus, instead of taking B-carotene supplements, opt for foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and dark leafy vegetables, which are not only rich in beta carotene, but also considered safe and healthy.
Vitamins alone cannot repair damage done to the body by cigarette smoking. The best recommendation is to quit smoking. Quitting smoking is a major change and often challenging, but this decision is the first and most important step in recovery. One year after quitting smoking, the risk of heart attack and stroke reduces notably. And, 10 years after quitting, the risk of lung cancer decreases by half. There are innumerable health benefits if you stop smoking. It’s never too late to quit.