Smoking and Your Digestive System

Just a little behind lung cancer, colorectal cancer is one of the deadliest diseases that can be attributed to smoking. In 2015 alone, the American Cancer Society estimates approximately 49,700 deaths due to colorectal cancer. Although there has been a decline in the death rate caused by the said illness, there is substantial evidence that shows there is a high risk of colorectal cancer among men and women in the US up to date.

Smoking has been proven to cause and increase the risk of a multitude of diseases. On a global level, many people know for a fact that the more than 7000 chemicals produced when you light up a cigarette are accountable for interfering with the body’s normal function. As soon as a smoker inhales cigarette smoke, the different body organs, including the digestive system, is affected in one way or another.

Prone to Heartburn and GERD

When you swallow your food, it passes through the esophagus and enters the stomach for digestion. A muscle between the two hollow digestive organs called the lower esophageal sphincter blocks the food from going back to the esophagus. Smoking weakens the sphincter, and therefore, increases the risk of heartburn—a burning, painful feeling in the chest due to reflux. Reflux pertains to stomach contents, such as food and acids that flow back to the esophagus.

Persistent reflux is called GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease). When someone experiences heartburn more than twice a week, he or she are at risk of GERD and should consult a specialist. Unlike the stomach, which has a natural lining that protects it from acids, the esophagus is prone to be damaged with persistent stomach acid reflux. In the long run, chronic GERD can lead to bleeding ulcers, a narrowing esophagus, and esophageal cancer.

Higher Risks of Developing Peptic Ulcers

As early as 1989, the US Surgeon General’s report has already stated the direct association between higher risks of developing ulcers and smoking.  Peptic ulcers are like wounds, technically open sores, in the lining of the duodenum (a part of the intestine) and the stomach. Ulcers are common and affect one in every ten Americans at least once in their lifetime.

There are many reasons behind peptic ulcers, such as bacterial infections, long-term use of certain drugs and medication (like ibuprofen and aspirin), and cancers. When a person smokes, both the duodenum and stomach are more likely to get irritated so that they develop ulcers and are less efficient in healing.

Smokers are more susceptible to infection from Helicobacter pylori, and damage from alcoholic beverages and pain relievers. Smoking also interferes with the production and decreases the amount sodium bicarbonates released by the pancreas. Bicarbonates neutralize the acids that are not used up in food digestion and reach the duodenum. On the other hand, other studies show that smoking increases the amount of stomach acids that are secreted, and, therefore, contribute to the irritation of the stomach and duodenum lining.

Worsening Liver Diseases

Out of all the organs in the digestive system, the liver is the largest and probably one of the most complex organs with multiple vital functions. It is responsible for producing bile and fundamental blood proteins, transforming the food that we eat into usable energy, and cleansing the blood by removing harmful toxins, foreign substances, and unnecessary materials.

According to research, smoking decreases the liver’s functionality, particularly in breaking down medications and substances, and filtering the blood to remove detrimental toxins.

Among others, liver diseases such as Primary Biliary Cirrhosis and Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease are known to worsen when a person smokes cigarettes. Smoking likewise affects the amount of medicine needed to treat illnesses, doubling the risk of developing medication-related peptic ulcers.

Higher Risk of Crohn’s Disease, Relapse, Repeated Surgery, and Drug Therapy

In the US, about 700,000 individuals suffer from Crohn’s disease, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. Crohn’s disease is the chronic inflammation of part/parts of the digestive tract due to an abnormal immune system response. It is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that is similar to ulcerative colitis but affects the whole digestive tract rather than only the large intestine.

Crohn’s disease makes the immune system attack healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. As a result, the intestinal wall is inflamed and thickens in chronic cases. Worst cases lead to blocking of the intestines, tearing off the lining of the anus, bleeding, ulcers, and fistula formations. Colorectal cancer risks are also heightened with chronic Crohn’s disease.

Smoking increases the risk of Crohn’s disease, relapse, repetitive surgery, and medication. Researchers are still in the process of finding out exactly how smoking does. However, they are so far convinced that the habit is responsible for lowering the ability of the intestines to withstand harmful substances, and interfere with the immune system in a way that it alters its response.

Higher Risk of Developing Colon Polyps, Pancreatitis, Gallstones

Smokers have higher risks of developing colon polyps. Compared to non-smokers, they also have larger polyps that are higher in quantity and with more probability for recurrence. Colon polyps are either on the inner surface of the colon or rectum and may be benign or malignant.

Pancreatitis, on the other hand, is the inflammation of the pancreas, causing enzymes to damage the tissues in the organ. It is known that smoking likewise increases the risk of this disease.

It is also believed, based on some studies, that smoking cigarettes make you more prone to developing gallstones. These tiny, stone-like particles can cause infection, inflammation, and pain when it blocks the ducts that connect the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas to the duodenum.

Cancer, Preventable Death, and a Life Cut Short

The digestive system takes care of the food that we eat and makes sure it is put to good use. Without the proper function of the digestive system, our bodies will not be able to absorb sufficient nutrients. Worse comes to worst, the abovementioned diseases may develop into colorectal cancer that may spell an untimely death.

In order to reverse the damages and minimize the future effects of smoking on the digestive system, it is best to quit the habit as soon as possible. There is plenty of smoking cessation aids that can be used, such as nicotine patches and nicotine gums.

Published: October 9, 2015


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