Nicotine Effects on Nutrition

Written in March of 2002

In my paper, I would like to examine two sides of smoking in the realm of nutrition and drugs. For one, why is smoking so addictive and secondly, how does nicotine effect your body’s internal functioning, in regards to the enzymes, vitamins and hormones that are affected by all the smoke that you take in.

To start with, why does the RDA recommend that smokers get more Vitamin C and E than the rest of us? Well yes, because they help lower levels of free radicals. Free radicals are partials that have been oxidized, which means that they have lost a electron. When you breathe these free radicals in, they steal electrons from enzymes and cells, oxidizing them, which stop them from doing their job effectually. D-alpha tocopherol, or vitamin E, is a fat soluble vitamin found in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains, cereals, and apricots and ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C,  is a water soluble vitamin present in citrus fruits and juices, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kiwi, and strawberries. These vitamins are antioxidants. They help to protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals by binding onto them, by essentially giving up a hydrogen atom. In the process, the vitamin C is used up. Cigarette smoke, which contains a lot of free radicals, places heavy demands on the body’s antioxidant defense system, including its vitamin C supply. The turnover of vitamin C is much greater in smokers than in nonsmokers so because of this increased demand, smokers need a higher intake of vitamin C than nonsmokers, in order to maintain normal blood levels of this vitamin.

As well as all the benefits of now having to drastically increase the vitamins you need, smoking also seems to be a key factor in sudden death from cardiovascular disease. It seems to raise blood pressure levels and heart rate, and may lower HDL-cholesterol levels (the good cholesterol). Smoking may also increase the tendency of blood to clot. The nicotine in cigarettes makes your body release adrenaline. Adrenaline causes your blood vessels to constrict and your heart to beat faster, which raises your blood pressure. This can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Tobacco also makes alterations in release of hormones, such as GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone) and estrogen. Gonadotropins are protein hormones produced by the pituitary grand and are Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH). In the women, FSH promotes the maturation of ovarian follicles and the eggs that they contain. The cells, which line each follicle, produce estrogen, which in turn promotes the growth of the uterine lining so as to create a good environment for embryo implantation. Estrogen also stimulates the cervical glands to produce a clear mucus, through which sperm must pass, on its way to the awaiting egg at the end of the fallopian tube. When the chemicals in cigarette smoke start playing with these hormones, pregnancies can end in miscarriages, or have disastrous effects later on in the baby’s life. Smoking while pregnant is a really bad idea.

But women smokers can and do get pregnant. If a woman continues to smoke during her pregnancy, or regularly breathes second-hand smoke, the risks for the unborn baby’s health, development, and growth are all increased. Smokers are more likely to have a miscarriage, spontaneous abortion during the second trimester, preterm labor and delivery or stillbirth. Women who stop smoking during the first trimester have little or no greater risk of having a low birth weight infant. As infants, children of smokers are at higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Long term effects on their health may include poor growth, slightly lower intellectual performance and behavioral difficulties. They are more prone to ear infections, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems. Quitting an expensive habit would clear up all the health risks associated with cigarettes, but not everyone can.

Smokers, who refuse to quit, but want to minimize their risk of illness, should consume a minimum of 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily and reduce the amount of stressor foods: refined carbohydrates; alcohol; caffeine; saturated fat; and processed foods – the good stuff. They should also take nutritional supplements: vitamin E (400 to 800 IU per day); vitamin C (5-15 mg per pound of body weight daily); and beta carotene (no more than 10,000 IU per day). Other antioxidants worth considering include: grape skin; seed or pine bark extract; lipoic acid; coenzyme Q10; green tea extract; and inositol six phosphate.

Yet will all this information, smoker continue to smoke! Smokers who are serious about reducing their risk of disease should also engage in regular exercise daily. Of course, quitting smoking would help much more than any food or supplement.

Most people gain a few pounds (usually less than 10) after they stop smoking. It’s important to know that any weight gain is a minor health risk compared to the risks of continuing to smoke. Smokers try to replace smoking with overeating. People can find other ways to keep your hands busy instead of picking up food. But to be on the safe side, smokers thinking of quitting should start snacking more on low fat foods to raise their metabolism and start exercising. Exercise helps burn calories and has the added benefit of keeping you busy so you can’t smoke. But why do they constantly put themselves at danger to cancers and other health risks? The answer, they are addicted.

I do not understand the mechanisms of addiction very well. I have been exposed to the “runner’s high” during competitive swimming, and while enjoying it, it didn’t move me on any level. Nicotine seems to have no affect on me, and alcohol is something that I enjoy at many occasions, but have never felt the need for a drink. My friends (many of whom smoke, exercise excessively or spend an unhealthy amount of time on Internet chat lines) attribute this to the fact that I don’t have an addictive personality. Is there such a thing? Well, it has become increasingly common knowledge that the sons of alcoholics are more likely to have a drinking problem, in fact I have a friend who abstains totally due to his father’s daily whiskey intake, but is do the sons of runners want to run more? Are the sons of smokers more likely to need nicotine to get through the day?

Having at least 50% of my friends being smokers has led me to the conclusion that they must see something in it that I have missed. When I ask people why they smoke, the number one answer I get is “because it relaxes me” New research is coming out every day telling us that smoking is not the wisest of choices. In fact, the number one response I get may be part of a vicious cycle – a new study shows that nicotine use does not alleviate stress but actually increases it to a new higher, more consistent level. So what are smokers getting that the rest of us are not? Could the there be a genetic predisposition to smoking as there is in alcoholism?

Two new studies are saying yes, but certain aspects of the findings leave me skeptical. Twin studies have recently suggested that a predisposition to smoking and the ability to quit are influenced by genetic factors. The research is based on a theory that there is an association between allele 9 of a dopamine transporter gene polymorphism (SLC6A3-9) and cigarette smoking.

A significant association between SLC6A3-9 and smoking status has apparently been confirmed, but is said to have more of an effect on quitting rather than starting. The research found that the SLC6A3-9 polymorphism is also associated with low scores for novelty seeking, which was the most significant personality correlate of smoking cessation. The researchers hypothesized that people carrying the SLC6A3-9 polymorphism have altered dopamine transmission, which reduces their need for novelty and reward by external stimuli, including cigarettes.

Does this mean that the reason that I don’t smoke is due to a dopamine fault that makes me less likely to seek novelties and rewards from outside sources? I highly doubt it. I am sure that most of my friends would agree that I am constantly seeking out new things and due to my expressive social style, looking for attention and rewards. I believe that another study also recently conducted has a much better theory: For years, nicotine has been shown to stimulate dopamine release. They believe that genetic variations in the dopamine receptors gene and the dopamine transporter gene (SLC6A3) may “influence concentrations of and responses to synaptic dopamine”, in other words, they believe that nicotine may just influence people with SLC6A3-9 more than others.

However, as with all neurotransmitter research, we cannot come to any definite answers because we just don’t know enough about the functioning of the brain to make them. All literature that I seem to read on this subject seems to taper off to some weak “but more research is required” ending. It is quite possible that we will see the end of big tobacco in the world before we understand the physical workings of the human brain that are involved in addiction, and with the amount of money that tobacco companies have, I expect that it will be a very long time.


Advanced Human Nutrition
Wildman, R. and Medeiros, D.

CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida 2000.

A Genetic Association for Cigarette Smoking Behavior
Sue Z. Sabol, Mark L. Nelson, Lorraine Gunzerath, Cindy L. Brody, Stella Hu, and Leo A. Sirota
Laboratory of Biochemistry, National Cancer Institute

Evidence Suggesting the Role of Specific Genetic Factors in Cigarette Smoking
Caryn Lerman
Lombardi Cancer Center
Georgetown University Medical Center

Does Cigarette Smoking Cause Stress?
Andy C. Parrott
University of East London

Evidence suggesting the role of specific genetic factors incigarette smoking.
Lerman, C., Caporaso, N. E., Audrain, J., Main, D., Bowman, E. D., Lockshin, B., Boyd, N. R. & Shields, P. G. (1999). Health Psychology, 18, 14-20.

Pregnacy and Smoking
Dr. Phillip Owen

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