Smokers with digestive trouble often blame their diet, stress, bad luck — anything but their cigarettes. After all, the stomach is a long way from the lungs. Or so it seems. You won’t read it on the Surgeon General’s warning, but the fact remains: Smoking is hazardous to your entire digestive system.
If you’re a smoker, think of that pain in your stomach or burning in your chest as a wake-up call. Kicking the addiction could be the key to getting your system back on track.
Here’s a closer look at the digestive problems linked to smoking.
A small valve at the top of your stomach is the only thing standing between you and heartburn. When it’s working properly, the valve keeps stomach acid from splashing into the esophagus. Unfortunately, smoking can weaken the barrier, allowing acid to escape. For this reason, smokers are prime targets for heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Smoking can also damage the lining of the esophagus, making it extra-sensitive to acid, according to the National Digestive Disorders Information Clearinghouse.
The good news is that the valve regains its strength soon after you take your last puff. If you manage to quit smoking entirely, your heartburn should become less frequent and severe. Not only will you save money on cigarettes, you’ll also go through a lot fewer antacids.
Smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop ulcers, painful open sores that form on the stomach or duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine). Smoking doesn’t cause ulcers directly. Instead, it makes the stomach and duodenum vulnerable to other threats. For instance, smoking blocks production of bicarbonate, a natural buffer that protects the lining of the duodenum from acid. Smoking also seems to encourage infections of Helicobacter pylori, the leading cause of ulcers, according to the August 2000 issue of the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
It all adds up to this: Smokers are more likely to have ulcers, their ulcers are slower to heal, and, unless they give up the habit, their ulcers are more likely to return. If you’ve had an ulcer in the past, or if you just have an aversion to grinding stomach pain, you have an excellent incentive to quit smoking.
Cigarettes are packed with toxic chemicals, including many extremely potent cancer-causing compounds. As a result, cancer can strike many parts of your body that encounter the smoke, including your mouth, throat, and esophagus.
But the threat doesn’t stop there. Studies suggest smoking also raises the risk of colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in this country. (Lung cancer is number one, again, thanks to cigarettes.) A study of more than 17,000 Swedish twins, published in the International Journal of Cancer, found that long-time smokers were three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop the cancer. In 2007, a study involving more than 146,000 Women’s Health Initiative participants also found smoking to be a risk factor for rectal cancer.
Crohn’s disease — an inflammatory condition of the digestive tract — is especially common in current and former smokers. If you already have Crohn’s disease, smoking may worsen your symptoms and encourage future attacks. The most severe cases of Crohn’s disease can send you to the hospital for surgery. If the medications to treat Crohn’s disease no longer work, you may need to have a section of your intestines or your rectum surgically removed.
Giving up cigarettes may seem like one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, but it’s far easier than colon surgery.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Smoking and your digestive system. February 2006.
National Cancer Institute. Questions and answers about cigarette smoking and cancer. August 2007.
National Heartburn Alliance. Smoking and heartburn.
Paskett, et al. Association between cigarette smoking and colorectal cancer in the Women’s Health Initiative. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. November 2007; 99(22):1729-1735.