If you’re a smoker, you’ve heard over and over and over again (like I have) about how bad smoking is for you and how much you should quit. I know, I know, I say, with ever sweet and sometimes guilty inhale. I too enjoy a good cigar with friends now and again. And, like many of you, and some of my patients, I have also had thoughts of quitting over the years. Then the time, or the thought or occasion passes, and here I am this weekend, again enjoying another round of cigars with good friends and family after a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner. Resolving to quit is both easy to say and hard to do. Especially around the holidays.
There is a lot of necessary public health education and discussion about the addictive effects of nicotine online, and even the organic harm done by nicotine (on this blog in recent posts by me and others); but to winnow it down, smoking’s biggest impact on the body, I believe, actually comes from the many tars and residues that smoking produces in the mouth, not mainly or only from nicotine ingestion. While nicotine is addictive and harmful in itself, minimizing exposure to and removing tars from the body cavity is a sometimes (obvious and) overlooked aspect to harm reduction for smokers of all kinds. Just try to imagine the residue left by moist tobacco as you suck it through your mouth and down your throat and into your lungs, like liquid through a straw. Imagine the ever-downward progressive residue. Even the most dry modern cigarette has some moisture in it. Cigars more. Chewing tobaccos and snus more, as you swallow with your saliva. However you absorb your nicotine and tobacco, your “oral cavity” (aka your mouth’s soft, protective and absorptive tissue, your gums, tongue, and throat), takes the brunt and incorporates the most chemicals into the body. And let’s not forget the enamel of your teeth, the destruction of which means not just tooth discolorization or yellowing, but (more expensively and permanently) tooth decay and (eventual) tooth loss and replacement.
As a dentist and as a smoker, this is what I try to do well myself:
- Brush regularly and do it well. Sounds obvious, is obvious, but is rarely well done. Angle your brush at a 45-degree angle with the bristles in contact with both your teeth and the gum line. Gently and thoroughly brush in an up and down as well as a back and forth motion. Gentle!
- Clean my tongue. You can use your toothbrush or try a tongue scraper for even better results. Get one, feel weird for a second of one day, and then appreciate the benefits.
- Always floss and don’t force. Big difference. There’s a reason why hygienists and dentists always ask if you floss THROUGH. I see flossing as teeth saving. It removes particulate, bacteria and microbes and stimulates new cell growth, gum strengthening, and blood circulation. CAUTION: Do not yank your teeth side to side, especially around known caps you have. Pull your floss straight through several times and don’t leverage floss around a tooth; you might lose a cap/molar being too aggressive cleaning (as I once did).
- Use a high-quality mouthrinse. If you’re here I hope you’ll give Nicorinse a try. Over 20-plus years I’ve tried everything; not finding it, we developed our formula specifically for tobacco users and smokers. Whatever you do, use a non-aseptic, non-drying, alcohol-free mouthrinse. Don’t just rely on recognized brand names. It really does make a difference. Cheap mouthwashes are like cheap cigars: you get what you pay for. Buyer beware. Look to the label.
Once you’ve established more optimal (for you) oral hygiene habits, it’s sensible and (relatively) easy to back it up with a healthy diet and regular exercise. Even some simple switches, like from bacon and eggs to whey powder and fruit in the morning, or taking a 30-minute walk daily, or an afternoon nap, simple changes to diet, sleep (and circulation) does wonders for the body for eliminating toxins, toxic stress, and making you feel better. A healthy routine can make you feel better in a very short while and actually improve your mouth health. For myself, even when my brain tells me ‘no’, I make sure try to take time to take care of myself in small ways, and even eat a salad when my brain says ‘fries’. It’s not always easy.
What you eat (aka, take into your mouth) clearly goes a long way in helping your body manage the impacts of smoking, too. Here are some basic healthy routines to do as a smoker (things I try to stick to as a guy in my mid-60s):
- Eat more dark green vegetables. Sounds obvious but seems hard to do daily, A healthy diet for smokers includes lots of dark leafy greens, kale, spinach, collard, cabbage, sprouts, beets, and carrots. You can even buy the liquids. Look for organic, high concentrates.
- Eat no meat on Monday. Or whatever day you choose. And less red meat overall. Reduce your overall red meat and animal protein consumption and try a few more vegetables, fresh and seasonal fruits, and whole grain cereals. (Meatballs with ancient grains combined with salt and pepper) is a really nice and simple recipe. If you want or like meat, try to choose white meats more often instead. (Pork is reported to be acidic, so perhaps choose chicken fish over pork.)
- Use quality vitamin supplements. Vitamin D, B, E & C, plus antioxidants, can help to minimize the harmful effects of smoking. People in nearly all countries are said to be deficient in vitamin D.
- Cut (out) down on coffee. Or replace with green tea. Coffee beans might have antioxidant properties, but these health benefits might be offset by the jitters. You may love that daily java jolt but minimizing your caffeine intake is an important consideration for your teeth and mouth, even your overall health. Including teeth grinding. Can’t go without North America’s hottest beverage in the morning? Consider swapping it for a cup of green tea. Or yerba mate. Or lemon and hot water. With cinnamon. Also said to be good for your soul.
- Sweat more. You might have a busy schedule, but making time for a regular workout is important for your body and mind. Find yourself pacing and grinding? Go for a walk now! Or a bike ride. Smokers who deal with stress through exercise or use things like infrared saunas, benefit from lowered cholesterol levels, lower resting heart rates, stronger lung capacity, muscle strength and endurance, and stronger cardiovascular and immune systems. In other words, all of the parts of the body most affected by smoking are stimulated to health.
- Laugh and enjoy life. Laughter and happiness boosts immunity and keeps us young. I think a good sense of humour is one of the keys to a healthy and happy life. It also makes you smile more. (Always anyone’s best asset.)
I like to remind my patients (and myself) that good health (like bad health) is cumulative – our daily habits go a long way in supporting and enhancing overall well-being. If you’re indulging your (often enjoyable) cigarette or cigar habit, like I do, you should (also) try to compensate in other ways by establishing better overall health routines and harm reduction practices to minimize the effects of your other life-affirming habits.