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It’s not enough to just stop smoking: tobacco can cause damage to your health no matter what form you consume it in. A recent study conducted by US and Swedish researchers and published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology has uncovered some of the mechanisms by which nicotine causes dangerous inflammation throughout the entire body.
Research in recent decades has begun to uncover how out-of-control inflammation contributes to the development of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. “Our study reveals an explanation how nicotine contributes to induction of inflammation and in doing so shows new possibilities for future therapies to treat tobacco-related diseases which each year lead to premature deaths of several million people worldwide,” researcher Constantin Urban said.
Nicotine hijacks the immune system
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use kills six million people each year. The bulk of these deaths come from diseases caused not by the various toxic additives in cigarettes, but by the very chemical that makes tobacco both addictive and pleasurable: nicotine.
Nicotine is a biologically active compound that produces various dangerous changes in the body. One of these changes is the promotion of inflammation, which is a major cause of lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, or emphysema). Roughly one in 10 adults in the Western world suffer from COPD.
In the new study, researchers exposed a form of white blood cell known as neutrophils to nicotine. In the presence of nicotine, both mouse and human neutrophils released inflammatory molecules known as neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs). The higher the nicotine dose, the more NETs released.
“This particular finding explains the missing piece of the puzzle of tobacco usage and inflammation,” researcher Ava Hosseinzadeh said. “This novel finding opens new avenues to [understanding] the consequences of tobacco usage for human health and should be seen as one more convincing argument to quit nicotine usage in any form.”
Next, researchers hope to replicate their results in experiments conducted on living animals and humans.
All tobacco products are equally harmful
Neutrophils, the most common form of white blood cell, destroy invading microbes either by engulfing them whole, or by targeted release of destructive compounds. These compounds include reactive oxygen species (free radicals) as well as NETs, which are actually DNA fibers released from the cell’s own nucleus. NETs, in turn, release antimicrobial enzymes and inflammatory molecules, which then kill the invading microbes.
Although inflammation has gotten a bad name in recent years, it is actually an essential part of the body’s immune response. But like free radicals, inflammation kills microbes because it’s not good for living cells. In fact, it is inflammation that is responsible for many of the symptoms we feel when we get sick. Inflammation is also responsible for the symptoms of other immune-related conditions, such as allergies or asthma.