Cigarettes and Your DNA: Another Reason to Quit Smoking

Even smokers know smoking cigarettes kills. Every year, smoking causes nearly half a million deaths in the U.S. and can cause a number of other health problems, including stroke and coronary heart disease, lung disease, high blood pressure, 17 types of cancer and blood clot formation.

But research in the past year shows the damage can extend far beyond a few years. Cigarette smoking can leave a 30-year legacy on your DNA. A study shows that smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for a year can cause several changes in cells within multiple parts of the body.

The cells that are directly exposed to smoke are particularly damaged—within one year, 150 mutations occur in lung cells, 97 mutations in the larynx and 39 mutations in the oral cavity. And this happens every year one smokes. So, for every year someone smokes a pack a day, he or she develops 150 more mutations in their lungs.

This means that smoking not only escalates the manifestation of genetic mutations, but it also increases the risk of cancer. While we’ve long known that smoking is linked to cancer, this new research allows scientists to quantify the molecular changes within one’s DNA that result from cigarette smoking.

The Long-Lasting Impacts on Your DNA

Additionally, not only does smoking cause genetic mutations, but it also causes changes in one’s DNA. By analyzing 15,907 blood samples from several groups of smoker and nonsmoker participants, researchers found more than 2,600 sites that differed between smokers and nonsmokers, which maps to more than 7,000 genes, or one-third of known human genes.

Among those who had quit smoking within five years, most of these sites were at similar levels to the non-smokers. This isn’t surprising because we often hear that making it to the one-year mark of recovery can cause vast improvements on a smoker’s lungs and other organs.

However, despite some improvement, this study found that around 185 of the 2,600 sites continued to harbor chemical changes even after 30 years of quitting smoking. Smoking has an incredibly long-lasting impact on your DNA and can last decades after you quit. So even though the majority of your DNA methylation signals return to never-smoker levels after five years, your body can still struggle to heal itself decades after.

Tips for Quitting Smoking

While it’s best never to start smoking, quitting can help significantly improve your health after five years. However, this is easier said than done. Smoking is not just a physical addiction but also a psychological habit. Nicotine is incredibly powerful, and smokers often rely on it to cope with stress or anxiety. And after smoking for a few years, it often becomes a habit as regular as brushing your teeth or drinking a morning cup of coffee.

Although challenging, quitting smoking is possible. Beyond nicotine replacement therapy and medication, there are many ways to help yourself quit smoking:

  1. Talk it out with yourself. When you first set out to quit, think about why you smoke and when. How many cigarettes do you smoke per day? Do you smoke alone or with other people? Do you associate any activities or places with smoking, such as eating dinner or your front porch? Do you smoke when you’re experiencing certain emotions, such as stress or anger? Understanding these components can help you avoid triggers.
  2. Set a quit date. When you decide you’re ready to quit smoking, choose a date within the next couple of weeks so you can prepare yourself but not lose your motivation.
  3. Share your plans. It’s helpful to have a support system who can motivate you and keep you accountable. When you quit, tell your friends and family so they can offer their encouragement. It can also be helpful to find a fellow smoker who’s ready to quit so you can work through the tough period together.
  4. Prepare for the hard times. Giving up nicotine is hard. It’s a powerful addiction, and withdrawal can be painful. The first few days can be most difficult, and you may feel irritable, depressed or tired. However, these withdrawals will fade. Beyond the initial withdrawal pains, the three-month mark is often a big hurdle. Many people who quit smoking but take it up again do so within the first three months. Even after making it through the first few weeks, keep these troublesome periods in mind so you can overcome them.
  5. Avoid triggers or smoking patterns. While you can’t avoid all triggers, such as the workplace, you can eliminate some habits that you relate to smoking. Drinking alcohol or coffee are common habits paired with smoking. In the beginning, you may want to avoid these, or at least be mindful of your association of the two.
  6. Get active. Find a new hobby, hit the gym, or take a walk around the block. Whatever you prefer, it’s helpful to pick up a new hobby or activity to replace smoking. When you’re feeling antsy or bored, get active instead of reaching for a cigarette.

Unfortunately, smoking for just a few years can still take a toll on your DNA. You may consider getting a DNA test to understand your body’s needs. For example, the Pathway Cardiac DNA Insight helps identify 23 traits associated with an increased risk of developing certain heart-related health conditions and provides insight into your potential responses to commonly prescribed medications, so your physician can develop a more personalized treatment for you. This is particularly helpful if you’ve been smoking for several years and worry about your heart health.

Ultimately, genetic testing can help you and your physician make more informed decisions regarding diet and exercise and develop a roadmap to achieve optimal health for your new life as a non-smoker.