There are probably hundreds of studies on the negative impact of smoking on your health. A smoking habit will likely shorten your lifespan and it’s also been suggested that smoking can “age you.” We already know it ages skin, based on comparisons between a twin that smokes, and one that doesn’t. In terms of cellular aging, the concept of oxidative stress has been well documented. Oxidative stress occurs when there’s a disturbance between the production of free radicals (reactive oxygen molecules), and natural antioxidant defenses. One example of this imbalance is cancer. So you can begin to understand the role of antioxidants in the aging and disease equations.
There are many factors in our environment that can act as oxidative stressors but the two most potent known oxidative stressors are the sun and cigarettes. COPD is directly linked to a smoking habit.We do know that some people seem to naturally withstand their smoking habit – never developing lung cancer or even COPD and emphysema. Others smoke and live to the ripe old age of 90 or beyond. Studies have identified a genetic marker that promotes longevity. The genes facilitate cellular maintenance and repair caused by the oxidative damage. Having these genes is like having natural super-resilient body armor.** Let’s hear it for SNPs**
The genetic markers that specifically afford longevity, even in the face of an oxidative stressor like smoking, are a network of SNPs. They are a sequence of DNA variation that is better able to withstand environmental damage, like smoking, and promote higher overall survival rates. These genes may also promote lower rates of cancer, which is why in these individuals who smoke, lung cancer rates are lower (another reason they live longer).
I am certainly not suggesting that you find out if you have these SNP’s and therefore decide to start smoking or continue smoking. Everyone should fear the consequences of smoking, short term and long term. The real benefit is in identifying what is the makeup of those who have been given these additional SNP defenses, and then finding ways to replicate this in others.
This strategy is being applied in cellular engineering to develop a whole new generation of medications. There is already a protein that’s been identified, called Nrf2 that aids cells in blocking the process of oxidative stress, and allows chemotherapy and radiation therapy to be even more effective. Certainly, when it comes to cancers and other diseases, we need to improve the playing field, so to speak, so that treatments have the most optimal chances of fighting and obliterating the disease.
Getting your fill of antioxidants
Many of my patients, who struggle with COPD, turn to vitamins and specifically antioxidants in the hope that these products will improve their health, help to minimize or counteract symptoms of disease, or improve their survival rate as they live with a chronic disease. Many of the vitamins and supplements are not regulated, and can have less than the amounts of active ingredients listed on their labels. They can also be contaminated. It’s also unclear when you take a vitamin or supplement how well they are digested so the active ingredients can be utilized by your body. By the time they are processed by digestive acids and pass through the stomach and intestines, it’s unclear just how much of the ingredients actually make it into the bloodstream and to target areas in specific cells. So the expectation we place on these supplements has to be tempered with what we currently know scientifically.
Research also suggests that antioxidants can actually help the bad cells, fueling disease, which is why you need to work with a knowledgeable health professional who can carefully advise on the use of antioxidants, when you have an ongoing disease, or when you are at higher risk of a disease process.
Research has looked at the role of antioxidant therapies in COPD. Agents like glutathione, dietary polyphenols (green tea contains these), and other compounds may have the potential to play an effective role in COPD therapies, though more research is necessary.
With flu season starting, I recommend that all adults get a flu vaccine. It’s especially important for someone with COPD to get the flu vaccine; since their lungs are somewhat compromised and catching the flu or developing a secondary pneumonia can be fatal or have dangerous health consequences. Research has also looked at the role of glutathione as a means of protecting specifically against Haemophilus influenza. This would be another opportunity to use an antioxidant to help to prevent full blown disease.
The future of medicine will likely include ways to optimize your own immune defenses. Genetic research will probably lead to methods that recreate your own immune defense mechanism using your own DNA, a superior approach compared to popping some antioxidants. Until then, your best option is to avoid habits like smoking that will more than likely promote serious, chronic diseases like COPD.
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Eli Hendel, M.D., is a board-certified internist/pulmonary specialist with board certification in Sleep Medicine. An Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Keck-University of Southern California School of Medicine, and Qualified Medical Examiner for the State of California Department of Industrial Relations, his areas include asthma, COPD, sleep disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and occupational lung diseases. Favorite hobby? Playing jazz music. Find him on Twitter @Lung_doctor.