Smoking And Cholesterol – Are They Related?

As we try to figure out all aspects of our lifestyle, genetics, and diet that can lead to high cholesterol there is one thing that continues to pop up – smoking.  It is clear that smoking and cholesterol are very much related, and definitely not in a good way.  Even without considering cholesterol, smoking has an extremely negative impact on your health and increases the risk of heart attack by 100%.  There is such a strong relationship between cholesterol and smoking that one of the first suggestions that any doctor makes when a patient is diagnosed with high cholesterol is – stop smoking!  

Cigarette smoking

Image via Wikipedia

What do we know about the effects of smoking on your cholesterol levels?

  • Increases the total amount of cholesterol in your blood.  While we don’t focus as much on total cholesterol numbers these days (specific HDL and LDL levels are more important), it is not good when your total cholesterol count goes up.
  • Increases the amount of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL).  This is the type of cholesterol that helps plaque build up in the walls of your arteries.
  • Decreases the amount of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL).  High-density lipoproteins (HDL) help to clear out cholesterol that is in your blood.  Studies have found that smokers have HDL levels that are at least 10% lower than non-smokers (The Lipid Research Clinics Program Prevalence Study).
  • Triglyceride levels increase.  As with high levels of cholesterol, having high levels of triglycerides is a sign that you have a high risk for a heart attack or stroke.
  • The nicotine in tobacco constricts blood vessels, increasing blood pressure.  With constricted blood vessels there is a higher risk that cholesterol can clog up your arteries.
  • Smoking increases your risk of death even with low levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (The Münster Heart Study).

What about secondhand smoke?

Yes, even secondhand smoke is deadly.  Annually, there are between 20,000-70,000 premature deaths attributed to secondhand smoke (American Heart Association).

Does quitting smoking help cholesterol levels?

Yes!  And quitting can cause fast results.  This is why doctors immediately suggest to smokers with high cholesterol that they should stop.  The most drastic difference seen in studies is the rise of HDL cholesterol levels.  In a study where habitual smokers were observed after they quit smoking, their levels of HDL rose by 29% within just two weeks!  Those that did not pick up the habit again maintained those high levels of HDL while those that started smoking again saw their HDL levels drop back down.

Is it just cigarette smoke?  What about pipes and cigars?

Smoking pipes and cigars seem to provide a lower risk of heart disease when compared to cigarette smoking.  However, that risk is still higher when compared to a non-smoker.  The difference between cigarette smoking and cigar/pipe smoking is probably due to the fact that pipe and cigar smokers generally do not inhale as much smoke.

It is clear that smoking and cholesterol are related, especially in regards to HDL cholesterol.  Without considering all of the other negative health effects that smoking tobacco provides, such as increased cancer risk and high blood pressure, just the impact on cholesterol should give smokers a reason to consider quitting.  It is understood that quitting is easier said than done, but there are many forms of help for those that seek it – from medication to support groups.  For the fastest way to see some health benefits you really need to put down the cigarettes.