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Smoke alarm: fortify that plate

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-06-2014 Kavita Devgan

A 48-year-old, Gurgaon-based marketing consultant had been suffering from recurring pain in the upper back for some years. The pain would come and go, and slowly got to a point where even painkillers were ineffective. A consultation with an orthopaedic specialist led to a battery of tests, including a test for vitamin B12 levels.

His B12 levels were extremely low (body ache and pain are symptoms) and the doctor put him on a course of B12 injections, which helped get rid of the pain. Plus, he was advised a diet rich in B12, and told to quit smoking immediately because there is an indirect correlation between vitamin B levels and smoking.

In fact, smokers tend to suffer from deficiencies of a lot of critical vitamins and minerals. “Smokers need more than the normal amount of antioxidants and nutrients to undo the damage that the toxins in the smoke cause at the cellular level (by increasing the free radicals in the body). Also, the levels of nutrients tend to be low in smokers as the presence of toxins interferes with the absorption processes,” says Pushpa Yadav, senior consultant, internal medicine department, Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, New Delhi.

It’s imperative for smokers to kick the habit. But they also need to look closely at their diet. “While consuming the right nutrients is no substitute for quitting the stick, taking care might just prove to be a lifesaver for them and add many productive years to their lives, as severe deficiencies of some vitamins and minerals are known to lead to the onset of multiple disorders,” says Anita Jatana, chief dietitian at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.

We list the vitamins and minerals that every smoker needs to look at closely:

Vitamin B complex

It has been known since the late 1960s that smokers tend to have reduced vitamin B12 levels in their blood and increased urinary output of the vitamin, as hydrogen cyanide in the cigarette smoke interferes with this vitamin’s absorption. “Weakness, fatigue, constipation, heart palpitation and numbness in hands and feet are some common symptoms of B12 deficiency, and in the long run it may even lead to depression, memory loss, anaemia, nerve and brain damage,” says Dr Yadav. Good sources of vitamin B12 are eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt and fortified cereals.

According to a 2010 study by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, published in the Journal Of The American Medical Association, smokers who maintain higher levels of B vitamins (particularly B6 and B9) and amino acid methionine in their blood have a lower risk of lung cancer. “Vitamin B9 (or folate) can be found in fruits and green leafy vegetables, dried beans, lentils, broccoli; vitamin B6 is common in fish, meat, potatoes and wholegrains; and methionine is present in various seeds, nuts, cereals, fish and meats,” says Jatana.

Vitamin C

The antioxidant powers of this vitamin can help neutralize the free radicals that smoking creates in the body. “The problem is that vitamin C needs to be supplied daily to the body as the body cannot store it—and it is essential for maintaining immunity levels, tissue repair and even absorption of iron, which is affected due to toxins created by smoke,” explains Honey Tandon, chief executive dietitian, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurgaon. “Symptoms of vitamin C deficiency include fatigue, depression, bad breath, constant body ache, delayed wound healing and increased susceptibility to infections. Its deficiency also increases the risk of stroke and heart disease,” adds Tandon. She says research has clearly shown that smokers have depleted vitamin C levels, so they need more of this vitamin to meet their body’s requirements.

“Good sources of vitamin C include orange, lemon, pineapple, broccoli, green pepper and watermelon. Make sure you have at least two vitamin C-rich foods daily,” advises Tandon.

Calcium and vitamin D

“Cigarette smoking has adverse effects on calcium and vitamin D absorption in the body. As both the nutrients are essential for bone health, chances of early onset of osteoporosis become really high,” says Dr Yadav. A 2013 study published in the journal Clinical Chemistry shows that decreased levels of vitamin D may predispose smokers to tobacco-related cancer. “Smokers need foods rich in calcium, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, soy drinks and calcium-enriched orange juice. For vitamin D, spending 15-20 minutes in the sun every day is advised. For better bone health, it is also important to ensure enough zinc (mushrooms, seeds and nuts) and magnesium (brown rice and legumes) in the diet to nourish your bones,” says Tandon.

Vitamin E

“Low levels of vitamin E are linked to cancers and atherosclerosis (hardening of coronary arteries), and smokers unfortunately have low levels of this vitamin in their body. So zero in on green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, peanuts, almonds, egg yolks, sweet potatoes, oats, vegetable oils, sunflower seeds and wheatgerm (sprinkle some on your oats daily),” says Jatana.

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It’s not just the vitamins

Take these precautionary measures too

Cut down on saturated fats

Smoking lowers HDL, or good cholesterol, levels and increases the risk of blood clots. So if you smoke, make sure to eliminate saturated fats from your diet and instead focus on healthy fats (unsaturated) from sources like fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.

Have lots of fruits and vegetables

Choose wisely: Go for fruits and vegetables rich in phytochemicals such as carotenoids and bioflavonoids, which help neutralize cancer-causing agents. Get regular servings of yellow, red, orange and deep-green vegetables and green, orange, yellow or red fruits. Corn, pumpkin, cauliflower, spinach, oranges, mangoes and papaya are fabulous choices. Also have grapes, cherries and strawberries, which contain ellagic acid, a phytochemical that counters the damaging hydrocarbons found in cigarette smoke.

Make your cup green

According to a 2010 study, smokers who don’t drink any green tea are nearly 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer than their counterparts who consume at least one cup of tea every day. Green tea is loaded with antioxidants, helps cure the bad breath due to smoking, and even has the ability to flush out toxins that affect the lungs. The study was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research-International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer joint conference on the molecular origins of lung cancer in the US.

—Honey Tandon, chief executive dietitian, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurgaon.

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