February is American Heart Month, and you’ve probably heard quitting tobacco has heart health benefits. While that’s true, many people who use tobacco don’t quit completely all at once. Evidence shows that even reducing how much tobacco you use can still directly benefit heart health, even if it’s a smaller benefit than quitting altogether. Let’s ditch that all-or-nothing thinking and take small, meaningful steps to a healthier heart.
To help you get started, here are four ways you can benefit your heart health AND begin to change your tobacco use patterns.
Change the Routine
Quitting tobacco is healthiest, but you may not feel ready to make that jump right now. In the space between now and when you are ready to quit completely, here are a few small shifts that can have a big impact on heart health.
- Reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke each day or week.
- Replace one specific cigarette in your routine with a new hobby or activity.
- Change your habits – go for a walk after a meal instead of having a cigarette.
The less tobacco you use each day – whether you smoke, dip, or vape – , your risk of heart attack starts to decrease, circulation improves, blood pressure starts to improve, and carbon monoxide levels in your blood begin to decrease. Quitting completely begins these changes within just one day, and risk for cardiovascular disease continues to decrease over time.
You might not think the mouth and heart have much in common, but increasing evidence suggests they may be closely linked. Tobacco use is one of several factors that can increase the possibility of gum disease, allowing bacteria to travel throughout the body and trigger inflammation in the heart’s vessels and valves. Research shows there is an increased risk of tooth decay and gum disease in people who use tobacco products.
- Delay your morning tobacco routine by brushing your teeth first.
- Instead of smoking after a meal, head to the bathroom to brush and floss instead.
- Chew a piece of sugarless gum in place of using tobacco to increase salivary flow and lower oral acidity (to make it harder for bacteria to grow).
Your dentist is the best source of information and support for your oral health. Schedule an appointment with your dentist or hygienist to brush up on proper brushing and flossing techniques. Partner with your dentist on your plans to reduce or quit tobacco use. Practice and maintain good oral health to help decrease inflammation throughout your body but especially to keep your heart strong.
Staying hydrated is a lesser known benefit for heart health. Your heart is constantly working to pump around 2,000 gallons of blood per day, delivering vital nutrients and oxygen to your entire body. This is especially important for someone who is smoking, as nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes cause dehydration and stunt tissue blood flow.
- Aim for 8-16 oz of water with each meal to help reduce the impact of withdrawal symptoms when reducing or quitting tobacco.
- “Eat your water” – snack on crunchy, nutrient and water – rich fruits and veggies to help keep cravings at bay by keeping your hands and mouth busy.
- Sip cold water through a straw to replace the oral connection to using tobacco..
A hydrated heart – taking in more water than you are losing – pumps blood more efficiently. This allows all the systems where your blood delivers oxygen to work even better.
Prioritize hydration and start your day with a glass of water. Snack on crunchy fruits and veggies when a craving to use tobacco comes up. Notice how you feel after hydrating your body and keep exploring creative and simple ways to add more water for a healthy heart.
One of the very best gifts you can give your heart is physical activity. Adding exercise into your daily routine is an important layer of protection against coronary artery and vascular disease. It also reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, and stops or slows the development of diabetes. When it comes to reducing or quitting tobacco, activity may offer a small amount of protection for the heart against some of the harms of smoking.
- Schedule a morning or break time walk in place of a cigarette.
- When a craving comes up, do 10 squats or march in place instead.
- Practice regular, moderate to vigorous physical activity three to five times per week to naturally reduce the urge to smoke.
For people thinking about quitting tobacco, physical activity can increase the chances of success, reduce symptoms of withdrawal like cravings, and calm feelings of stress.
Physical activity is defined as any bodily movement that requires energy. This includes things like walking, cycling, strength training, yoga, playing with the kids or pets, cleaning the house, or movement you fit in on your commute. The key is to do something you enjoy or that checks something off your to-do list. Get that heart pumping and start reaping the rewards!
There are important connections between having a healthy heart and making intentional changes to one, or many, aspects of your overall wellness – maybe even some you hadn’t thought of. Quitting tobacco is one of the most important actions you can take to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, but even if you’re not ready to quit completely, there are still health benefits that are worth your while.
Betty McGuire, MS, NBC-HWC
Ariana Lohmann, BS, NBC-HWC, TTS