Understanding the Links Between Smoking and Type 2 Diabetes

Understanding the Links Between Smoking and Type 2 Diabetes

Read time: 5 minutes

  • You know smoking can be harmful to your health in multiple ways, but do you know why it shares such a strong link to type 2 diabetes?
  • In short, smoking derails your body’s ability to use insulin, obstructs blood flow to your heart, and it can make you gain weight in your stomach—all of which contribute to diabetes.
  • Quitting smoking is undeniably challenging and will look different for everyone. But it’s possible.

When you think about aspects of your lifestyle that might affect your risk of diabetes, or habits that could cause complications with managing the condition if you already live with it, what comes to mind first? Diet, exercise, perhaps medication? What about smoking? We’re all well aware of the many health dangers associated with smoking, but what do you know about its connection to type 2 diabetes?

Smoking and Type 2 Diabetes

You already know that smoking raises your risk of several health issues, including cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and even certain eye diseases, just to name a few.

And maybe you do already know that smoking is commonly linked to type 2 diabetes—but do you know why?

Basically, chemicals in cigarettes not only harm cells in your body and trigger inflammation, but they also cause your cells to be less responsive to insulin, the hormone that helps blood sugar enter your cells and keeps your glucose levels balanced. So, when your cells don’t respond well to insulin, your blood sugar becomes imbalanced, raising your risk of type 2 diabetes or, if you already live with the condition, complicating your ability to manage your blood sugar.

Then there are the effects that smoking can have on your weight. While it’s true that nicotine can suppress your appetite, multiple studies have shown that people who smoke are more likely to carry extra fat around their stomachs, even if they’re otherwise not overweight—which, in and of itself, happens to be a risk factor for diabetes, not to mention other chronic conditions. (Learn more about what your body fat distribution can mean for your health.)

As for heart health, smoking can wreak havoc in a number of ways. It can raise your level of triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood), lower your HDL cholesterol (the kind that absorbs and removes artery-clogging LDL cholesterol), and it can make your blood stickier and more likely to clot, thus blocking blood flow to the heart and brain. Smoking can also increase the build-up of plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium) in blood vessels, causing them to thicken and narrow.

Even the risk of diabetes associated with smoking can impact your heart. Diabetes impacts the health of the heart and blood vessels due to higher blood sugar levels. (Here are more reasons why heart health is a necessary part of your diabetes self-care.)

For the record, e-cigarettes and vape pens aren’t necessarily any safer. In recent years, you might have read that vaping has been linked to lung injuries. And e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, which is not only highly addictive but can also raise your blood pressure, increase your risk of a heart attack, and decrease your sensitivity to insulin, thus setting the stage for type 2 diabetes. Research also shows that e-cigarettes are associated with a higher incidence of prediabetes.

Tips for Smoking Cessation

To state the obvious, it’s not easy to stop smoking. After all, quitting typically means breaking yourself out of a rigid cycle of addiction.

Nicotine releases dopamine in the gratification centers of the brain, changing certain structures and functions in the brain over time as addiction develops. Smoking can be described as compulsive because the brain signals distress when the stimulus (smoking) is removed. Returning to smoking then neutralizes the distress, creating that cycle of addiction.

Breaking the cycle will look different for everyone. Some may find it helpful to quit cold turkey; others might feel more comfortable with a slow-and-steady process. Fortunately, smoking cessation experts can help you navigate the path to quitting smoking, no matter what yours looks like. (Find out how One Drop can help you use health forecasting insights to track your progress and support your goals.)

In the meantime, consider these smoking cessation tips:

Start by identifying your triggers. Ask yourself: What situations set off my urge to smoke? Whether it’s a bad day at work, chaotic traffic on your commute, or an argument with your partner when you get home, recognizing what makes you tick is the first step in adopting healthier ways to cope.

Replace smoking-related behaviors with healthy habits. For example, if you normally smoke while you drive, try driving and eating a healthy snack when you want to reach for a cigarette. Or, if you often meet up with friends to smoke, invite the group to do something more active, like an outdoor dance class or a trip to the beach. In other words, it’s not a matter of eliminating triggers that remind you of smoking or make you want to light up; it’s about finding healthy habits that can replace your old ones.

Use visuals to track your progress. Create a calendar or log your smoking digitally to notice trends. Documenting your progress not only helps you see where you’ve been and where you’re headed, but it also reminds you to stop and celebrate from time to time. (Try making a vision board to help you reach your goals.)

Consider medications. Some medications can help reduce the urge to smoke and make your quitting plan more effective. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two smoking cessation aids that don’t contain nicotine: varenicline tartrate (Chantix) and bupropion hydrochloride (Zyban), which both require a prescription and come in tablet form. But nicotine replacement therapy (NRT)—which supplies nicotine in controlled amounts (via skin patches, lozenges, chewing gum) without all of the other chemicals in cigarettes—is also an option, both by prescription and over-the-counter.

Join a program. Having someone to go on this journey with you can be helpful. The added accountability and camaraderie can create a healthy environment for quitting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW, which is operated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and will connect you directly to your state’s tobacco quitline. Freedom From Smoking is another highly regarded smoking cessation program, hosted by the American Lung Association. You can also talk to your primary care doctor about any programs they might know of in your area. And don’t forget that One Drop coaches can always be your cheerleader on the sidelines, no matter what health goals you’re chasing.

This article has been clinically reviewed by Lisa Graham, RN, BSN, CDCES, health coach and director of clinical operations at One Drop, and Alexa Stelzer, RDN, LD, CDCES, health coach at One Drop.

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One Drop Team
Jun 01, 2022

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