Smoke Screen

Smoke Screen

Many smokers find it impossible to quit. I’m not talking about those who are hooked on the habit of lighting up every few minutes – I’m talking about people who may have never smoked a cigarette in their lives, but live or work in an environment that’s filled with secondhand smoke. In terms of damage to their heart, they might as well be smokers.

Of course, smokers have the option of giving up their smoking habit – an option that many secondhand smokers don’t have. So today’s e-Alert is for those passive smokers who have little or no say about quitting.

Two long hours

A non-smoker who spends several hours in a smoky environment experiences about the same amount of stress on the cardiovascular system as someone who smokes an entire pack of cigarettes. Studies have revealed this timeline of the way secondhand smoke affects the heart: 5 minutes: The aorta begins to stiffen

30 minutes: The blood becomes “sticky” with activated blood platelets; damage to the artery linings begins; blood vessel dilation is reduced

2 hours: Heart rhythm may become disturbed

“Damage to artery linings” – that’s endothelial dysfunction. In a healthy person, the endothelial cells that line the heart and blood vessels release nitric oxide (NO). But when the endothelium is damaged, NO production is decreased and blood vessels become less responsive to changes in blood flow.

Obviously, this puts the cardiovascular system at considerable risk. But an intake of certain foods may help smokers and passive smokers alleviate endothelial cell damage.

Healing helpers

Studies have shown that foods containing flavanols may increase bioactive NO in the blood. (Flavanols are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory chemicals that give some fruits and vegetables their color.) Researchers at Heinrich-Heine University in Germany tested this NO reaction to flavanols in a cohort of 11 smokers.

Subjects were given a cocoa drink that contained 88 to 370 mg of flavanols or a flavanol-free drink that tasted the same. The next day, subjects crossed over in the drinks they received. On each day, two measures were recorded before the drinks: NO levels and blood vessel flow-mediated dilation. These measures were also noted two hours after the drinks.

Results showed that blood vessel response improved and NO levels increased significantly with the flavanol drink, but not the placebo.

When pigs fly

Lead author for the Heinrich-Heine study, Christian Heiss, M.D., told NutraIngredients that it’s unlikely that cocoa can completely offset the harmful effects of smoking.

Unlikely? I’d say it would be VERY unlikely for cocoa to trump the damage that smoking does to the cardiovascular system. But then, Dr. Heiss may be trying to walk the line between serious research and deference to the company that supplied the cocoa drink: Mars. Yep: the candy company.

In the past few years we’ve seen a number of Mars-sponsored studies touting the health benefits of chocolate products. I wonder what Mars executives are up to? Sponsoring these relatively small studies seems like an odd and roundabout way to sell chocolate. Maybe they’re planning to launch a campaign to convince smokers to enjoy some “healthy” chocolate whenever they light up.

That would be an unlikely road to cardio health.

Nevertheless, the basic finding of this study – the confirmation that flavanol intake helps maintain the nitric oxide mechanism that promotes healthy arteries – provides those who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke with a heart-healthy dietary tool. And sure, you can pick up some flavanols from cocoa products (especially dark chocolate), but far healthier sources of flavanols include apples, broccoli, onions, various berries, tea and wine.

Heart-health isn’t the only flavanol benefit. A 2003 study from Finland found that people who consumed large amounts of flavanol-rich foods were less likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as lung cancer, asthma, and type 2 diabetes.