You’re probably aware that smoking is the number one risk factor for the development of lung cancer, that it contributes to breathing problems, and that it’s bad for your heart. But did you know that smoking also affects your gut? Let’s take a look at what smoking does (or doesn’t) do to your digestive tract.
- Smoking is protective against the development of ulcerative colitis.
Scientists remain baffled as to why the research shows that smoking protects against the development of ulcerative colitis, yet is considered a risk factor for its sister disease, Crohn’s disease. The mechanism of action would be helpful to know so that medications that mimic it while removing the other health problems of smoking can be produced. In the meantime, we don’t suggest anyone start smoking for this reason, as the other poor health effects far outweigh this small benefit.
Smoking increases your risk of developing a stomach ulcer and lengthens the time needed to heal if you do develop one.
Some studies have shown that the concentration of nicotine in stomach acid is greater than that in the blood stream and it’s believed this could play a role in increased production of acid in your stomach. In addition, it alters the stomach’s ability to produce mucus, which protects the stomach tissue itself from the acid it produces. Smoking also alters the stomach’s ability to get healing blood to an ulcer because it can cause narrowing of the blood vessels around the stomach.
- Smoking increases your risk of getting colon, pancreatic, esophageal, and stomach cancer.
Yikes! If you thought smoking only increases your risk of getting lung cancer, think again. It has been linked to an increased risk of colon, pancreatic, esophageal, and stomach cancer, too. Besides all of the known cancer-causing ingredients present in cigarettes, smoking also contributes to the destruction of perfectly normal cells by increasing the presence of free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive and unstable molecules in the body present either as a natural part of metabolism or caused by exposure to toxins. These molecules seek stability, but in the process of becoming stable again, they can damage proteins and DNA in the body. Free radicals have been linked to aging and the development of cancer. The “cure” for free radicals is the ingestion of antioxidants in the form of foods or teas (preferred sources) or supplements. Of course, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Prevent the formation of extra free radicals by limiting exposure to toxins in cigarettes.
- Smokers have a higher risk of getting Crohn’s disease, especially among women.
Crohn’s disease, like ulcerative colitis, is a type of inflammatory bowel disease. As mentioned above, smoking is somehow protective for ulcerative colitis. This is not the case with Crohn’s disease. Patients with Crohn’s disease who also smoke are more likely to have severe disease, need more medication to control the disease, necessitate surgery for their disease, and have recurrence of disease even after surgery. It is believed that cigarette smoking alters the makeup of the tissue in the digestive system, causes inflammation, decreases the gut’s natural immunity, and decreases blood flow to the intestines. All of these are implicated, along with a genetic predisposition and exposure to environmental toxins or microbes, with the development of Crohn’s disease.
- Smoking can alter the gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome is a buzzword in gastroenterology right now, among patients, physicians, and scientists. The gut microbiome is the combination of bacteria, fungi, and yeast found within the digestive system in a normal human. It is the subject of intense research looking into whether alterations in its composition contribute to the development of disease, including inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. It has even been implicated in mood disorders. Probiotics and prebiotics (found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, also available in supplement form) help keep it healthy.
As you can see, smoking certainly affects your digestive system. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health, not just for your gut, but for your whole body. But quitting is hard. If you’re ready to quit, your doctor can help. Give them a call to set up an appointment.