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Smoking and the Damage to Your Heart

Natalie Stein
February 7, 2020
Smoking and the Damage to Your Heart

February is American Heart Month, and a great time to reflect on how to protect your own heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, responsible for one in four deaths, and hypertension is also linked to heart problems and stroke. Smoking and other forms of tobacco use damage your heart and cardiovascular system, and quitting tobacco can be one of the most effective steps you can take to protect your heart.

Whether you are ready to quit, you are just thinking about it, or you have tried a few times are are ready to try again, quitting tobacco use, or even trying to quit, can be great for your heart health and have many other benefits. This month, why not take some time to learn about heart health and how you can protect it, high blood pressure and how to prevent and manage it, and how to get help for quitting tobacco use if you want it. Lark can help with all of these with always-available, compassionate coaching based on behavior change techniques that work.

Tobacco, Heart Health, and Blood Pressure


Cardiovascular disease refers to any disease that affects your cardiovascular system, which includes your heart and blood vessels, such as veins, arteries, and capillaries. Smoking can contribute to heart damage and cardiovascular disease in many ways[1].

  • Damaging the heart and lining of the blood vessels when they come into contact with the thousands of chemicals in smoke that are carried by blood cells that should be carrying clean oxygen.
  • Increasing plaque build-up in the arteries due to the extra chemicals in the blood, leading to atherosclerosis.
  • Increasing risk for blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes, due to thicker blood and plaque.
  • Causing peripheral artery and vascular diseases which can lead to amputations.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects 1 in 3 American adults, and is a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease, and kidney disease. It is known as the “silent killer” because it can be present for years without causing any symptoms. It results from too much pressure of your blood against the walls of your blood vessels. Smoking may increase blood pressure by activating your sympathetic nervous system, which you may feel when your heart and breathing rates increase when you use tobacco.

Small Changes to Improve Heart Health


Though heart disease is serious and widespread, it is also often preventable. It does not take much to lower your risk, since small steps that fit into your lifestyle can be effective. Lark can coach you in making small changes that can become habits and lead to lasting improvements in cardiovascular and other aspects of health. These include:

  • Losing weight.
  • Increasing physical activity.
  • Eating more vegetables, healthy fats, and high-fiber foods.
  • Limiting sugary, salty, and fatty foods.
  • Getting adequate sleep.
  • Managing stress.
  • Quitting tobacco.

In addition, as prediabetes and diabetes are risk factors for heart disease, using Lark Diabetes Prevention Program or Lark for Diabetes if you are eligible can help control blood sugar levels.

Managing Hypertension


If you have high blood pressure, the same lifestyle changes that promote heart health can help lower blood pressure (do be sure to check with your doctor if you have hypertension, since there may be differences in the best approach if you have complications, such as chronic kidney disease, or other chronic conditions, such as diabetes). 

What Happens When You Quit Using Tobacco?


The benefits of quitting start almost immediately. This is an approximate timeline [2].

  • 20 minutes: blood pressure decreases and heart rate returns to normal.
  • 12 hours: carbon monoxide, a toxic chemical, leaves the bloodstream.
  • 1 to 9 months: coughing decreases and there is less shortness of breath.
  • 1 year: risk of coronary heart disease is half of what it was when you were smoking.
  • 4 years: risk of stroke is the same as a non-smoker’s risk.
  • 5 to 10 years: risks for mouth, throat, esophageal, and lung cancers decrease.
  • 15 years: risk for coronary heart disease is the same as that of a non-smoker.

In addition, there are gains in quality of life. Imagine not needing to “go out for a smoke” on your break or in the middle of family activities, or not worrying about starting a fire in bed or elsewhere in your home from a smoldering cigarette butt. Your taste buds will wake up, and you will not need to wonder if you smell before you go out in public[3].

With all these benefits, it is no wonder that more than two-thirds of tobacco users want to quit, and half have tried to quit within the past year. 

Quitting Tobacco: Challenges and Help


There is no question that quitting is hard because of physical addiction to, and emotional dependency on, nicotine. Withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, more coughing, increased hunger, constipation, and fatigue. You may feel irritable, depressed, and foggy.

It can help to know that the physical discomfort peaks 3 to 5 days after quitting, and may be gone by the end of a month. After that, the greatest challenges may come from environmental cues, such as lighting up at the end of a meal, when you feel some stress, or when you are with certain friends. Having an alternative plan, such as popping a breath mint to finish meals, can help fight the urge to quit.

Though quitting is hard, help is available. Most health insurance plans provide excellent coverage for quitting tobacco. This may be out of the goodness of their hearts, but more likely, it is because quitting is worth it, financially, for the payer. Since your health can improve so much when you quit, your healthcare costs, and the amount you cost your health insurer or employer, can decrease dramatically. 

A program that includes both nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and behavioral therapy can be the most successful when you are trying to quit. Lark Tobacco Cessation, which is available as part of Lark for Hypertension, Diabetes, and Chronic Disease Prevention, can help with preparing to quit and planning strategies for when you do begin your first or next attempt. 

Boosting Your Heart Health


There are plenty of ways you can lower your risk for heart disease in addition to avoiding or stopping tobacco use. In fact, following a healthy lifestyle can lower your risk for coronary heart disease by more than 50%![4] Heart-healthy behaviors that can give you this benefit include:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight or losing weight if you are overweight or obese.
  • Getting at least 150 minutes per week of physical activity.
  • Limiting television watching to a maximum of 7 hours per week.
  • Having a diet high in whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, and omega-3 fats, and low in sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meat, sodium, and trans fats.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption to a maximum of 1 (for women) or 2 (for men) drinks per day.

Lark can help you work towards setting and achieving goals for weight loss and other healthy choices in your life. The app offers personalized coaching, instant feedback, logging and tracking, and timely and useful insights. With small changes in daily routines, you can turn heart-healthy choices into lifelong habits.

Written by Natalie Stein on February 7, 2020
Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health
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