The risks to health caused by smoking are well documented especially in our lung health.¹ Asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, and other breathing-related conditions have been known for many years to be caused or made worse by smoking.
However, smoking also causes various other health issues, including heart disease. This is in part due to the increase in cholesterol levels.
This article will examine how smoking causes high cholesterol and some ways you can reduce this risk.
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Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in your blood and cells. The liver generates most of the cholesterol in your blood, but the rest comes from the food you ingest.
Cholesterol needs to be packaged up as lipoprotein to travel around the body.
There are two forms of cholesterol:
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol packages up excess cholesterol from around the body and sends it to your liver to be eliminated.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the unhealthy cholesterol that can build up in your arteries to form plaque, a waxy deposit that can block normal blood flow.
Cholesterol is essential in a healthy body, as it is needed to help make various hormones, digestive acids, cell membranes, and vitamin D. However, having excessive levels of LDL cholesterol can damage your arteries, cause heart disease, and increase your risk of having a stroke.
It is important to have your cholesterol levels checked. This can be done by asking your doctor to refer you for a blood test.
High cholesterol is often associated with lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and stress. Sometimes a family history of high cholesterol also plays a role. Changing your lifestyle habits can help to decrease your risk of high cholesterol and the complications associated with it.
Smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop heart disease. This increased risk results from chemicals in cigarettes that narrow blood vessels and increase the levels of “bad” cholesterol in your blood.
Smoking makes it more difficult for your body to remove LDL from your body, which can stick to your arteries and clog them up.
It is well known that smoking can damage your lungs significantly and increase your risk of lung disease, cancer, and asthma. Beyond the direct impact on your heart and lungs, vapors released when smoking tobacco:
Increase (LDL) cholesterol levels
Decrease high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels
Increase the likelihood of blood clotting
Increase the viscosity of blood
Decrease the width of blood vessels
Damage cells that line blood vessels and arteries
Acrolein,² a substance found in cigarette smoke, has been found to alter cholesterol levels. Acrolein can prevent HDL cholesterol from transporting LDL cholesterol out of body tissues to the liver to be eliminated, resulting in a buildup of LDL in the body.
Thus, smoking increases the accumulation of LDL cholesterol in arteries and hinders the ability of HDL cholesterol to counteract the damage caused by LDL.
In addition to increasing cholesterol levels, smoking can escalate a person's risk of heart attack and stroke. This is caused by the increase in LDL cholesterol levels and the decrease in HDL cholesterol levels.
These changes can cause inflammation in arteries and blood vessels, as well as plaque buildup within them. Plaque in blood vessels can harden and break off over time, which may result in blood clots, which cause strokes.
If plaque is present in blood vessels, it is more difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently throughout the body. This increases the stress on the heart, as it must work harder and may decrease blood flow throughout the body.
High cholesterol and plaque buildup can result in coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US. There are many other risk factors for heart disease, including:
Family history of heart disease
Hypertension (elevated blood pressure)
Smoking is a variable risk factor that can be decreased by a change in lifestyle. Decreasing or stopping smoking can decrease cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, and heart attacks.
Stopping smoking can reduce the damage to the heart, lowering the risk of cardiovascular emergencies. The lung and heart damage associated with smoking can be improved within a very short time frame.
Within hours of quitting smoking, your heart rate returns to normal, and the chemicals that you inhale when smoking begin to leave your body
Within days of quitting smoking, your breathing quality will increase, and your sense of smell and taste will improve
Within a month of quitting smoking, blood flow around the body will be improved, your energy levels will increase, and exercise will become easier
One study³ found that the risk of heart attack and heart disease can decrease by 50% after one year of quitting smoking
After 15 years of being smoke-free, the risk of heart attack and heart disease can decrease to levels similar to those seen in people who have never smoked a cigarette
Stopping smoking is difficult because addiction to smoking happens on two levels:
Nicotine is an addictive substance in tobacco thought to be as addictive as cocaine or heroin. Nicotine works the same way as other addictive drugs by flooding the brain's reward centers with a chemical called dopamine, which causes feelings of pleasure.
Smoking cigarettes is an addictive behavior. Addiction is an emotional or mental dependence on a substance.
Decreasing tobacco intake is key to managing the risk of high cholesterol, stroke, heart attack, heart disease, and many other health problems.
Talk to a medical professional or smoking-cessation specialist about your options for stopping smoking:
Medical professionals may be able to prescribe medications or smoking-cessation aids to help to ease cravings and reduce the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal
Smoking cessation specialists may be able to offer you a wide variety of resources to help you on your journey, such as pointing you in the direction of a support group
You may be prescribed medications such as varenicline and bupropion. These drugs can change the chemicals in your brain to decrease nicotine withdrawal symptoms and ease nicotine cravings.
Other options can help you quit smoking by delivering nicotine without the chemicals in cigarette smoke. These options include:
Smoking and high cholesterol are deadly combinations and can have a major effect on your cardiovascular health. By quitting smoking and decreasing cholesterol, your overall quality of life and health will improve.
Smoking causes damage to many vital parts of your body, not just the lungs. Smoking can increase your LDL cholesterol levels and decrease your HDL cholesterol.
This increase in LDL cholesterol levels in your blood can cause an increase of plaque in your arteries, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease.
Quitting smoking can eventually decrease cholesterol levels in your blood to levels similar to those in people who have never smoked a cigarette in their life.
Stopping smoking is important in decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease and increasing your lifespan. Your doctor will be able to provide you with additional resources to help you quit smoking.
Biochemistry, cholesterol | NIH: National Library of Medicine
Cardiovascular diseases | NIH: National Library of Medicine
Cardiovascular diseases | World Health Organization