There are lots of reasons why smokers should stop smoking. But it isn’t easy. Many smokers believe that since “The damage has already been done, it doesn’t matter.” (1). In reality, your lungs have an almost “magical” ability to repair themselves.
Thanks to some surprising findings published recently in Nature (2), it’s evident that lung cells that escape the damage of smoking and the mutation of lung cancer cells can help heal some of the damage. The only catch is that you need to stop smoking first.
The effect is so noticeable that it’s even observed in patients that have been active smokers for over 40 years before finally giving the habit up.
What exactly is the damage from smoking
Without going into too much detail, the thousands of chemicals in tobacco smoke literally mutate and corrupt the DNA of your lung cells with prolonged exposure. It’s these mutations that turn our lung cells cancerous.
These mutations happen even before an actual cancer is formed and the overwhelming majority of lung cells and other respiratory cells in not-yet-cancerous patients tend to be mutated.
The types of mutations caused by tobacco can be numerous and there are over 10,000 different observed lung cell mutations up to date.
Dr. Kate Gowers, one of the researchers at UCL that’s behind the study (3) says that “These can be thought of as mini time bombs, waiting for the next hit that causes them to progress to cancer,”
What’s the good news?
What the folks at UCL also discovered is that even in severely damaged lungs there’s almost always at least a portion of still unscathed cells that are healthy and work normally. What’s more, once a person stops smoking and exposing their lungs to tobacco, as long as there isn’t an already developed lung cancer, the remaining healthy cells start growing faster than the damaged ones and slowly rejuvenate the lungs.
After extensive research, the UCL scientists discovered that once a smoker quits the growth of healthy lung cells outpaces the growth of mutated ones to such an extent that their relative count can increase by dozens of percentage points.
Dr. Peter Campbell, from the Sanger Institute says that, “We were totally unprepared for the finding. There is a population of cells that, kind of, magically replenish the lining of the airways.
“One of the remarkable things was patients who had quit, even after 40 years of smoking, had regeneration of cells that were totally unscathed by the exposure to tobacco.”
A great motivation to quit
There’s still a lot of research to be done and we’ve yet to see just how much of a smoker’s lungs can be ‘fixed” by simply quitting the habit. The research so far was mostly focused on the major airways in people’s lungs so there’s more to find out about the smaller alveoli structures in the lungs where oxygen is transferred into our bodies.
However, even just these findings are more than enough proof to demonstrate why quitting as soon as possible can not only prevent future damage but mitigate a lot of the damage already done.
Or, as Dr. Rachel Orritt from Cancer Research UK puts it, “It’s a really motivating idea that people who stop smoking might reap the benefits twice over – by preventing more tobacco-related damage to lung cells, and by giving their lungs the chance to balance out some of the existing damage with healthier cells.”