Smokers already face a slew of health risks, but the habit may be particularly hazardous for those with diabetes, according to a new study.
Nicotine — the addictive substance found in cigarettes — may increase blood sugar levels for diabetic smokers, putting them at risk for further complications of the disease, the researchers say.
"If you're a smoker and have diabetes , you should be concerned and make every effort to quit smoking ," said study researcher Xiao-Chuan Liu, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at California State Polytechnic University.
While previous studies had shown smoking increases HbA1c levels — the average amount of sugar in the blood over several weeks — the study is the first to pinpoint nicotine as the culprit behind the increase.
Higher HbA1c levels may mean a higher chance of other serious health conditions including stroke, kidney and eye disease.
"It is another piece of evidence encouraging patients to stop smoking, especially if they have diabetes," said Dr. Mansur Shomali, associate director of the Diabetes and Endocrine Center at Union Memorial Hospital in Maryland, who was not involved with the study.
"We should be more diligent of screening patients with diabetes who smoke for diabetes-related complications," Shomali said.
The researchers examined blood samples from healthy patients treated with both sugar (or glucose) and nicotine at amounts ranging from 0 mm to 50 mm.
Nicotine levels similar to those found in the blood of smokers increased HbA1c levels by as much as 34 percent.
One possible reason for the reaction, Liu said, is that nicotine may interfere with the way glucose attaches to proteins, leading to changes in the structure and function of the protein—and possible health complications.
The results confirm that even if you aren't diabetic, smoking raises your chances of getting the disease, Liu said. "I think the population with high smoking rates should be concerned," he told My Health News Daily. "If you increase the HbA1c level by one percent, you increase complication risk by 40 percent."
Do smoking alternatives carry risks?
For people who are using smoking alternatives or smoking cessation aids (such as patches and gums) on a short-term basis, the results may spur questions about nicotine levels in the blood. But the risk of raising HbA1c levels is minimal, Liu said. The nicotine concentration shrinks or disappears and HbA1c levels should go back to normal for those using these products after just a few weeks, he said.
However, long-term usage of products such as electronic cigarettes may carry some potential risks. "They have a huge amount of nicotine," Liu said. That is hazardous because the nicotine level in the blood is comparable to regular cigarette smoking, he said.
And though this new finding hasn't yet been published, further research will examine the effect of other sugars in the blood, Liu said.
The findings were presented on March 27 at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif.
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