Smokers are more likely to develop diabetes than non-smokers.
For people with diabetes, however, smoking is a serious risk factor for numerous health issues they may face. Smoking may even cause diabetes.
Quitting is the best course of action smokers can take for their health. However, some strategies may reduce the health effects for some of those with diabetes.
Contents of this article:
Smoking and diabetes: Can smoking cause diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is also closely linked to certain lifestyle factors, including smoking. In fact, smokers are 30-40 percent more likely than non-smokers to develop diabetes. People who have diabetes already and who smoke are more likely to have uncontrolled diabetes.
Smoking damages cells and tissues, increasing inflammation. It also causes oxidative stress, which is when molecules called free radicals damage cells. Both these conditions are linked to an increased risk of diabetes. They can cause other health problems, as well, including cardiovascular disease.
Research further suggests that heavy smoking increases abdominal fat. Even in people who aren't obese or overweight, excess abdominal fat is a risk factor for diabetes.
Health risks of smoking
The health risks of smoking are numerous, and researchers are constantly uncovering new health concerns associated with smoking. The habit of smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, while more than 16 million Americans have a smoking-related disease.
Some of the risks of smoking include:
- cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease (CHD), heart attack, and stroke
- lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic bronchitis
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in infants exposed to secondhand smoke
- autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn's disease
- damage to the eyes and optic nerve that can lead to blindness
- fertility problems, such as ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, and preterm birth
- low birth weight and birth defect risks rise from smoking during pregnancy
- cancer, including lung, oral, bladder, colon, pancreatic, and kidney cancer
- oral health problems, such as gum disease and tooth loss
- a weakened immune system that increases vulnerability to infections
How smoking affects diabetes
Both diabetes and smoking damage the cells and organs of the body. Smoking also makes many of the health effects of diabetes worse. For example, diabetes is linked to cardiovascular disease while smoking also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. So, the two together greatly increase the risk.
Smokers who have diabetes may be more likely to have poor circulation and develop heart disease.
People with diabetes who also smoke are more likely to:
- experience kidney and heart disease
- have poor circulation leading to infections, ulcers, blood clots, or amputations
- suffer eye diseases, such as retinopathy, that can cause blindness
- experience nerve damage that leads to pain, tingling, and mobility impairments
Many of the combined health effects of smoking and diabetes may make it more difficult to make healthful lifestyle choices. For example, cardiovascular and lung problems can make exercise uncomfortable. Similarly, circulatory and nerve problems can cause chronic pain that leads to a sedentary lifestyle. These problems tend to make the symptoms of both smoking and diabetes worse.
How to lower the risk of smoking and diabetes
There is no safe way to smoke, particularly with diabetes. The best way to lower the risk from smoking is to quit. Or if quitting is not possible, to dramatically cut down.
The following strategies may lower the risks associated with smoking and diabetes:
- Exercise may lower the risk of lung cancer in people who smoke. It also supports good glucose metabolism, and can reduce the chance of obesity, which is another risk factor for diabetes.
- Healthful eating can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fiber intake is especially important for people with diabetes, because fiber helps lower blood sugar.
- Taking diabetes medications as prescribed. People with uncontrolled diabetes are more likely to experience diabetes complications. Smoking compounds these risks.
- Cutting back on smoking. There's no safe number of cigarettes to smoke, but heavy smokers tend to suffer more extensive health problems.
People with diabetes who smoke should consult a doctor before making any significant lifestyle changes.
Smoking is an addiction. Quitting is difficult, but it significantly reduces the risks of short and long-term complications that are linked to smoking itself, diabetes, and the two combined.
Before quitting, smokers should consult their doctors to determine the best course of action.
Smokers with diabetes may need to change their diets, since smoking suppresses appetite and quitting can trigger the urge to overeat. A 2015 study found that people with diabetes who quit smoking might struggle with controlling their blood sugar levels.
Quitting smoking or dramatically cutting down is recommended for smokers with diabetes.
Some smokers plan to steadily wean themselves off cigarettes, but this can actually prolong the stress of quitting. That is because each reduction in smoking may cause a smoker to experience new withdrawal symptoms.
Most smokers attempt to quit several times before they are successful, and some may make dozens of attempts. Each attempt helps smokers learn what works for them. A failed attempt is not a failure, rather one step on the way to quitting successfully.
It is perfectly understandable that people experiencing withdrawal may worry that these cravings will never go away. Others may view smoking as their only source of pleasure. It is important to remember that these negative feelings are caused by the addiction, which distorts thinking.
Some strategies that can help smokers quit include:
- Replacing smoking with a new, healthier habit. Smoking is both a behavioral and chemical addiction. So breaking the association between smoking and certain activities can be helpful.
- Using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). NRT does not work for all smokers, and people with diabetes should consult a doctor before trying it.
- Trying psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can help smokers better understand why they smoke and why they think smoking helps them cope. It also offers support for the emotional challenges of quitting.
Quit-assistance medication is a further option for smokers who want to break the habit. These drugs can reduce cravings, and some also help with the emotional side effects of quitting smoking. A smoker should talk to a doctor about whether quit-assistance medication is safe to use with their diabetes medications.
When quitting, many people will experience cravings and withdrawal, but these will become more manageable with time, eventually disappearing altogether.