Can't Quit Smoking? Eat More Oranges
FRIDAY, Sept. 15 (HealthSCOUT) -- How about an orange juice chaser with each cigarette you smoke?
That might not be a bad idea, suggests a new study.
Intravenous injections of vitamin C -- the supposed cure-all for everything from colds to cancer -- immediately repair damaged blood vessels in smokers, the researchers say.
But smokers shouldn't make a beeline for the vitamin aisle, they say, because the findings are just preliminary.
The study does offer hope, though, that eating fruits and vegetables will help diehard smokers do something about the serious hazards of tobacco.
The findings add to existing knowledge about how smoking harms the circulatory system and causes heart problems, says co-author Philipp Kaufmann, an assistant professor of cardiology at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland.
Researchers used positron emission tomography, called a PET scan, to check the blood vessels of 19 middle-age men from Great Britain. Of the participants, 11 had smoked for at least 10 years, and the other eight were nonsmokers. The smokers were fit, and most were police officers.
However, extra blood flow in the small blood vessels of the smokers during periods of stress -- when the heart cries out for it -- was 21 percent below that of the nonsmokers.
The smokers "had no problem and no pain, nothing at all, but even so they have a reduced flow of blood to the heart, particularly during stress," Kaufmann says.
Scientists have long known that smoking creates plaque that clogs arteries, much like a jackknifed semi-trailer blocks traffic on a busy freeway.
But the effects on smaller blood vessels -- the side roads of the circulatory system -- are a bit different, Kaufmann says. Smoking appears to damage the inner layer of the vessels so they aren't as flexible and cannot carry as much blood during times of stress, when it's needed, he says.
The cause appears to be so-called "free radicals," or unstable oxygen molecules, which are among the thousands of toxic molecules that enter your body when you inhale smoke, Kaufmann says.
Vitamin C, an antioxidant, appears to neutralize the toxic effects of smoking by targeting the unstable oxygen molecules, he says. Findings appear in the current issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation.
That may explain why heavy-smoking people in the Mediterranean area -- including Italy, Spain, southern France and Greece -- don't have a high rate of heart disease, Kaufmann says. People there eat more fruits and vegetables, and thus more vitamin C, than those in other countries.
Smokers should not take the study results as a sign to embrace vitamin C supplements, Kaufmann says, because researchers have not studied the long-term effects of their use.
"The best recommendation would be to stop smoking, but I would suggest that they try to eat healthy food and orange juice and things like that," he says.
Nutritionists generally agree, although they differ over the wisdom of smokers taking vitamin C supplements.
Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health, says the study gives no indication about whether vitamin C supplements will have the same effect as the intravenous injections used in the study.
"If anybody who is smoking thinks that vitamin C is going to do much to offset the effects of smoking on their heart, they're kidding themselves," Kava says. "The best thing you can do for your heart if you're a smoker is stop smoking."
But another nutritionist suggests that smokers should consider taking a vitamin C supplement because their bodies often do not get enough of it.
Nicotine appears to lower the level of vitamin C in the body, although the generally poor diet of smokers could play a role, too, says Lynn B. Bailey, a nutrition professor at the University of Florida.
Research already has shown that "the higher the vitamin C in the blood, the lower the risk for cardiovascular diseases," Bailey says.
"I wouldn't take a megadose," she cautions. Excess vitamin C is flushed out of the body, but it still can cause kidney stones in some people, she warns.
As for the smokers who participated in the study, they don't have coronary heart disease now, "but they will probably get it in future years if they continue smoking." Kaufmann says. "This is very dangerous."
The researchers did not test women, he says, mainly because of the complications that would arise from menstruation and possible pregnancies.
"I would expect that this is not different for women," Kaufmann says, "but this is speculation."
What To Do
The best thing a smoker can do, health-wise, is stop smoking. But if you smoke and don't plan on quitting, increase the fruits and vegetables in your diet. It can't hurt and may help. In fact, it's not a bad idea even if you aren't a smoker.
If you're curious about the way smoking hurts your heart, check out information provided by Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
For information on quitting, visit the University of California at San Diego's Smokers' Helpline.
To learn more about the importance of vitamin C, take a look at a fact sheet provided by Ohio State University.