See You on the Other Side: How Reversible Is the Impact of an Unhealthy Lifestyle

At the age of 65 a man finds himself suffering from sleep apnea and a fear of one morning simply not waking up with increasing frequency. He sees a doctor to find out, to his horror, that if he doesn’t quit the habit in the nearest future, he will not live much longer.

Almost everyone has an uncle, grandpa, or a friend of a friend who has faced a situation like this. Among these stories there are definitely those that ended badly, but there are also those that had better lives come as a result of a painful bout of withdrawal.

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A staggering 97% of Americans live unhealthily, which means they either don’t exercise enough, don’t eat properly, don’t keep their body fat in check, or smoke. Below, we take apart the habits that have a particularly bad effect on the cardiovascular system to see if any of the damage done by them is reversible.

Smoking

Smoking has an acutely adverse influence on our cardiovascular system. It greatly increases the risk of developing atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. The changes in the cardiovascular system triggered by tobacco which contribute to these risks are:

  • increased blood clotting
  • faster heart rate
  • higher blood pressure
  • reduced volume of oxygen delivered to the heart
  • increased amount of lipids that build cholesterol plaque
  • damaged artery walls

The good news is that the influence of smoking is partially reversible. After you quit the habit, the airways are no longer subjected to the inflammatory impact of smoke, their walls heal and produce less mucus, and the mucus that is secreted gets cleared out better. Probably the most significant difference that smoking cessation makes is connected to boosted oxygen transport by the blood, due to it being cleared of carbon monoxide.

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To be more specific:

  • within 2 years of quitting smoking, the risk of having coronary heart disease decreases by about 50%
  • within 2 years of quitting smoking after a heart attack, the risk of dying of heart disease is reduced by 36%
  • within 5 years, your risk of having a stroke is equal to that of a non-smoker

It should, however, be noted that substantial damage to the lungs induced by smoking, such as scarring and stiffening of lung walls, and emphysema are irreversible.

Alcohol

Hypertension is known as a silent killer disease for a reason. In part, it is an underlying cause of virtually any cardiovascular emergency. The fact that drinking alcohol is associated with a significant increase in blood pressure should make anyone too comfortable with binge drinking think twice before ordering another round of drinks.

Fortunately, human body is wildly adaptive and is capable of healing itself with surprising speed. According to various clinical trials, within a week of alcohol consumption withdrawal there is a significant decrease in blood pressure, and within a month it can reach a healthy range.

“What lies at the root of any excuse for not giving up a habit is not business or laziness, but the mere fact that change is difficult and giving up addictive habits is even more so.”

Obviously, drinking has a profound influence on all body systems and if it has been a part of one’s life for too long, the damage done to the liver, the brain and the heart is partially irreversible.

The general principle is that reversal happens quickly in the first weeks and months within cessation of the habit and slows down over time.

Junk food

Eating a diet high in saturated fat and sugar has been proven to promote obesity, diabetes and liver disease. By increasing blood sugar levels and the amount of bad cholesterol, poor eating habits contribute to atherosclerosis, and set a range of destructive processes into motion.

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As soon as you transition into a healthier mode of nourishing yourself, you will notice changes. Most significantly, you will lose weight, which will decrease the strain on the heart induced by excess mass of tissue.

On the downside, plaque buildup in arteries that is primarily triggered by improper nutrition, smoking, and high blood pressure can’t be reversed. While it can be slowed or stopped, the plaque that has accumulated will remain intact.

Quitting is Hard, but You Should Go Through With It

The reason why so many people are still riding the wave of unhealthy living is multifaceted. Among the many factors that contribute to nationwide obesity and smoking are a busy lifestyle, laziness and simple ignorance. Yet what lies at the root of any such reason is the fact that change is difficult and giving up addictive habits is even more so.

As different as the three heart disease risk factors mentioned here may seem, they are, in fact, very similar. When a person tries to quit any of these habits, they go through withdrawal, all suffering from symptoms that are quite alike. They include:

  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • mood swings
  • headaches
  • elevated heart rate
  • sweating
  • tremor

If you want to succeed, there are several things you should consider:

  • Don’t jump into it and go cold turkey. The effect of sudden withdrawal especially if you haven’t been moderate about the habit, will have equally severe backlash. You may find it extremely hard to withstand the onset of all the symptoms we’ve mentioned.
  • Be patient. Contrary to what you might have heard about forming a new habit, and how it only takes 21 days, the truth is that the number is closer to 60 days. You’ll have to brace yourself for quite a rollercoaster in the nearest couple of months.
  • Look for guidance. You will be surprised how much of a difference even the simplest piece of professional advice can make to your misery.
  • Procrastinate the bad habit. Try putting off undesirable behaviors the way you would the good ones. For instance, if your hand starts reaching for a Snickers bar at supermarket checkout, tell yourself that you’ll buy it tomorrow, and repeat it every time this happens until your craving subsides.

The bottom line is that although very few things can be reversed fully, changing your lifestyle will still make a difference and lower your risks of developing certain diseases considerably. While withdrawing is hard and requires willpower and patience, the way you will feel when you come out on the other side will be well worth it.

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