How smoking affects the aging process

How smoking affects the aging process

Cigarette smoking is harmful to nearly every cell, organ and system in the human body. It causes damage at a cellular level that ultimately damages our health and impacts the way we age. 

Many of the effects of smoking are well known, such as weakened cardiovascular and respiratory health, reduced skin tone and elasticity, and increased risk of cancer. However, what is happening at a cellular level and if we are not in a place where we are ready or able to give up, is there anything else we can do to support our health?

Whilst there are multiple mechanisms that contribute to age-related disease, the accumulation of damage to our DNA is emerging as a key driver[i]. DNA instructs our cells how to function and, although it is constantly repairing itself against daily stressors, over time it starts to lose this battle, leading to cellular aging and disease.

Exposure to the chemicals found in cigarettes cause oxidative stress in the body, leading to long lasting damage to our cellular membranes and DNA[ii],[iii]

Smoking not only leads to oxidative stress, it also depletes key antioxidants that help to defend our body against the impact of oxidative stress. Cadmium, one of the chemicals found in tobacco, reduces the levels of selenium and zinc in the body and smokers have also been found to have lower levels of vitamin C, vitamin E, B-carotene and several B vitamins.

Telomeres function as protective caps at the end of our chromosomes, allowing cells to divide healthily. As we age, telomeres shorten, cell division slows down and our cells start to secrete proteins that contribute to age-related health conditions. A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis found that telomere length was shorter among current and former smokers compared to those never smoked. Furthermore, telomere length was found to be shorter in current smokers versus those who quitted smoking[iv].

The cellular damage caused by smoking also includes changes in the way that DNA instructs proteins to fold within our cells, leading to cellular malfunction. It effects the way that our cells build and breakdown molecules within the body and leads to cell death.  Research suggests that this damage may contribute to the development of respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease[v],[vi],[vii],[viii].

Top tips for smokers

  • Increase your intake of whole foods, such as fruit, vegetables, healthy fats (e.g. salmon, avocados, eggs, nuts, seeds) and lean meats – avoiding processed foods and instead eating whole foods, will help to restore the nutrient status of your body.
  • Eat lots of different fruits and vegetables, aiming for three pieces of fruit a day and preferably organic where possible – fruit and vegetables are natural sources of antioxidants. A variety of different coloured whole foods (e.g. orange, yellow, purple, red and green) offer exposure to a wider range of nutrients and antioxidants.
  • Include a variety of fruit and vegetables that contain sulfur (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, onions, garlic, leeks, shallots) – these foods help your body to detoxify and increase your levels of antioxidants.
  • Drink plenty of water – water helps the body to flush out toxins and improve elimination channels, reducing your toxic load and helping the body to function better.
  • Ensure you are regularly exercising and breaking a sweat to support your detoxification pathways, cardiovascular and respiratory health.
  • Consider dry skin brushing and saunas to support circulation and elimination of toxins.
  • Use natural skin products, including those containing antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E.

Suzy Walsh BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ is a Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist



[i] Yousefzadeh, M., Henpita, C., Vyas, R., Soto-Palma, C., Robbins, P., & Niedernhofer, L. (2021). DNA damage—how and why we age? eLife10

[ii] Astuti, Y., Wardhana, A., Watkins, J., & Wulaningsih, W. (2017). Cigarette smoking and telomere length: A systematic review of 84 studies and meta-analysis. Environmental Research158, 480-489.

[iii] Preston, A.M. (1991). Cigarette smoking-nutritional implications. Prog Food Nutr Sci, 15(4):183-217. PMID 1784736

[iv] Astuti, Y., Wardhana, A., Watkins, J., & Wulaningsih, W. (2017). Cigarette smoking and telomere length: A systematic review of 84 studies and meta-analysis. Environmental Research158, 480-489.

[v] Kenche, H., Baty, C. J., Vedagiri, K., Shapiro, S. D., & Blumental‐Perry, A. (2012). Cigarette smoking affects oxidative protein folding in endoplasmic Reticulum by modifying protein disulfide isomerase. The FASEB Journal27(3), 965-977.

[vi] Hassan, T., Carroll, T. P., Buckley, P. G., Cummins, R., O’Neill, S. J., McElvaney, N. G., & Greene, C. M. (2014). Mir-199a-5p silencing regulates the unfolded protein response in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and α1-antitrypsin deficiency. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine189(3), 263-273.

[vii] Tran, I., Ji, C., Ni, I., Min, T., Tang, D., & Vij, N. (2015). Role of cigarette smoke–induced Aggresome formation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease–emphysema pathogenesis. American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology53(2), 159-173.

[viii] Blumental-Perry, A. (2012). Unfolded protein response in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Smoking, aging and disease: A SAD trifecta. Current Molecular Medicine12(7), 883-898.