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Smoking doubles the risk of mental illness, new study finds

New research from Aarhus University in Denmark has finally linked smoking to an increased prevalence of mental health disorders, a correlation previously assumed. 

By now, I think we’ve all collectively acknowledged how damaging smoking can be for not only ourselves but also those around us. Once a suave character trait romanticised by the golden age of Hollywood, smoking has fast fallen from grace, now a dirty, secret habit reserved for dingy alleyways and pub courtyards. 

Pretty much every detrimental health condition has been linked to the activity, now leaving the list of reasons to light up pretty obsolete.  

And while the damage smoking causes to our physical bodies has been more than well-established, new research is now revealing our mental health could also be at serious risk.

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A classic chicken and egg conundrum

Though previous research demonstrates a higher prevalence of mental illness amongst smokers, some critics have been apprehensive about labelling the vice as a definite cause. 

Given the addictive nature of smoking, and its popularity as a method of stress relief, researchers have previously found it hard to determine whether smoking is indeed a generator of mental illness, or if people with existing conditions are simply more inclined to turn to cigarettes as a coping mechanism. 

But now, the latest research appears to prove that smoking is indeed a cause of mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The groundbreaking study involved the intricate comparison of health and lifestyle data from the UK Biobank. As one of the world’s largest human health databases, researchers had access to genetic data information on over half a million people.

According to Dr Doug Speed, the statistical geneticist at Aarhus University’s Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics, the results of the study are conclusive. 

“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Dr Speed in a statement. “Although it’s not the only cause, smoking increases the risk of being hospitalised with a mental illness by 250 per cent.” 

A major factor contributing to this conclusion was the timing of when participants first recorded taking up their smoking habit. On average, researchers found most smokers began their nicotine addiction at age 17, with data relating to treatment for mental illness not appearing for roughly another decade.  

The findings of the study also uncovered a genetic link between smoking and mental illness. By analysing health data, they concluded particular people may be genetically predisposed to developing a smoking addiction. 

“The people in the dataset who carried the smoking-related genes but did not smoke were less likely to develop mental disorders compared to those who carried the genes and smoked,” Speed says.

“In this study, we demonstrate that it’s probable that the risk of starting to smoke causes the risk of developing mental disorders to increase due to the ‘smoking-related genes.’”

More research is needed 

While solid links have been established between smoking and mental illness, the question of how exactly smoking contributes to many conditions still remains unanswered.

“We still need to find the biological mechanism that causes smoking to induce mental disorders,” explains Speed. 

A popular theory further research hopes to prove is that long-term nicotine use inhibits the absorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, potentially causing anxiety and depression.

Despite further evidence needing to be uncovered to support theories such as this, the latest study reaffirms the notion that smoking causes long-term, irreversible harm to the body. 

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Why the ‘budget’ Ozempic trend is more dangerous than you think

Off-label usage of injectable semaglutide medications like Ozempic and Wegovy have exponentially grown in popularity. With more and more people seeking them out, they’re also looking for cheaper ‘alternatives’. 

Ozempic and fellow injectable semaglutides are all the rage right now, but it seems misinformation may be to blame. Originally designed to assist patients in managing their Type 2 diabetes, the drug has quickly become entangled in the pursuit of more superficial goals. 

Fuelled by the world’s insatiable hunger for thinness, people across the world are seeking prescriptions for such medications, desperate to experience just one of many side effects associated with the drug: weight loss. As a result, health systems across the world have found themselves unable to keep up with the growing demand, causing worldwide shortages for those who need it most. 

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In a statement released by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) earlier this month, they confirmed “Currently we are asking health professionals to continue limiting Ozempic prescriptions to the TGA-registered indication of the management of type 2 diabetes as there may not be adequate supply to support off-label use for other conditions such as the management of obesity.” 

Regardless, many people in our society so deeply steeped in diet culture are determined to get their hands on the medication. But the off-label usage of semaglutides so popular amongst Hollywood’s elite doesn’t come cheap. 

The steep price, coupled with the scarce availability of the drug, has forced those only seeking the medication for weight loss to look for cheaper alternatives – regardless of the fact they do not have diabetes, or the potential side effects of taking the drug when it’s not medically appropriate. 

But like clockwork, TikTok’s ‘experts’ have entered the chat, flogging an abundance of misinformation to their loyal followers.

So what exactly is this ‘budget Ozempic’?

The ‘alternative’ methods of fast weight loss aren’t quite as simple as reactivating a gym membership or stocking the fridge full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the old-fashioned means of getting fit just won’t cut it for today’s crowd, who seem far more interested in quick fixes. 

So, as they do for any trending topic, the masses have once again turned to TikTok for guidance.  

Unsurprisingly, it seems the ‘finding cheap options for Ozempic’ movement is being led by a particular sector of TikTok, known as #GutTok (amassing over 1.1 billion views), with a variety of unfounded ‘experts’ weighing on the topic. Whether armed with positive personal experience, or simply a loud set of opinions, creators across the app are dangerously recommending a variety of dieting choices, over-the-counter medications, and supplements to their audiences.  

Laxatives appear to be amongst the most talked about TikTok ‘recommendations’ for weight loss, with claims a daily dose of the medication can mimic the side effects of the notorious injectable drugs.

But, as Dr Michela Sorensen, shares, attempting to achieve weight loss through the use of laxatives introduces several health risks, with the theory lacking any reputable medical evidence to support the claims. 

Why this trend needs to be flushed

Dr Sorensen, a general practitioner and women’s health specialist, explains that sustained and healthy weight loss simply cannot be achieved by gorging on laxatives. Not only is it not an effective method, but it could actually be putting you at serious risk. 

“The majority of the ‘weight loss’ after laxative use is actually due to the loss of water from the body rather than fat,” explains Dr Sorensen. “The issue with the overuse of laxatives is that it can cause dehydration and severe electrolyte and blood sugar imbalances, which can cause damage to not only the gut but potentially be fatal.”

So while laxatives may induce a feeling of weight loss, it is simply your body expelling water. According to Dr Sorensen, the process is only temporary and doesn’t mimic that of the infamous injectibles at all. 

“Ozempic works by increasing insulin levels and reducing glucose release, this balances blood sugar levels and can reduce appetite,” she says. “Laxatives work by either increasing stool volume or stimulating the gut to increase excretion, or both, so, comparing the two is blatantly incorrect and very dangerous.”

The only time the general practitioner would recommend the use of laxatives is when a patient is experiencing prolonged constipation, or if they are already taking medications that increase the risk of constipation. 

And like any medication, regardless of whether you need a prescription to access it or not, your GP or specialist doctor should be consulted prior to taking any. 

So when it comes to weight loss medications or their budget ‘swaps’, the guidance from doctors and the TGA remains the same: do not seek out semaglutides like Ozempic unless prescribed by your doctor for treatment of Type 2 diabetes, and don’t think that taking laxatives every day is going to help either. 

As the TGA states, “The best way for most people to lose weight safely and effectively is by eating a healthy balanced diet and increasing physical activity. 

“A weight-loss product is not a ‘magic bullet’ for losing weight and cannot replace either of these lifestyle changes. Weight-loss products are only intended to support the efforts you are making.” 

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CSIRO health diet score: Australia is officially failing when it comes to eating a balanced diet

The statistics on Australians‘ eating habits are in, and as it turns out, we’re not the healthy nation we think we are.

Australia has the freshest produce in the world. Our agricultural industry is rich with grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables

We also produce a tonne of animal products like meat, eggs and dairy, but new research shoes we’re on the back foot when it comes to actually consuming all this natural, nutritious goodness.

According to data collated for the CSIRO Healthy Diet Score report, the 235,000 Aussie adults who participated scored an average of 55 out of 100. The findings were sourced over an eight-year period between 2015 and 2023, and showed a bad pattern among two groups of Aussies workers.

So, who are the worst culprits?

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Construction workers were among those with the poorest diets (51/100), while retirees and those working in the fitness industry reported some of the healthiest eating patterns (59/100). Still, even that figure isn’t great.

Interestingly, alongside construction workers, people who worked in the beauty/fashion industry reported the highest discretionary, or unhealthy, food consumption, at an average of 45 serves per week.

The report also showed that while women only have a slightly better diet quality than men (56 v 53/100), their vegetable intake is markedly higher (62 vs 54/100).

The report showed we only just met the pass mark when it comes to adopting the national dietary recommendations. 

“The score is a stark reminder of the work that needs to be done to improve our eating habits and reduce the national waistline,” said Dr Gilly Hendrie from the CSIRO. 

Let’s put all this information into perspective.

The discretionary food component of the report showed that on average, we consume 28 serves a week. The foods that were the biggest contributors to this score were alcohol, cakes and biscuits, confectionary and takeaway meals.

Only four out of 10 adults ate three or more vegetables with their main meal.

Despite alcohol being a big contributor to the above, the CSIRO did find that Aussies are choosing water over soft drinks, energy drinks and juice, leading to a score of 93 out of 100.

“The good news is that a healthy diet can be achieved with some simple changes,” Dr Hendrie said. “The things to keep in mind is reduce, increase and add variety.

„In other words, reduce the amount of discretionary foods being consumed, increase healthy foods including fruit and dairy and alternatives, and aim for variety by eating three or more different types of vegetables with your main meal.“

It sounds so simple, but will we change our eating habits? Maybe the threat of lifestyle disease will.

“Improving our collective score is important to increasing our wellbeing, tackling Australia’s obesity crisis, and mitigating lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

“It is clear that we have a long way to go. As a nation, we need to be eating better. We encourage people to take the test and improve their understanding of how their diet stacks up. It’s never too late to improve eating behaviour and overall health and wellbeing,” Dr Hendrie said.

To give you an idea, each day an Australian adult should be eating five serves of veggies, two or three serves of fruit, six serves of grains, two-and-a-half serves of lean meat or vegetarian alternatives, and the same for dairy.

CSIRO is calling on all Australians to take the free, online Healthy Diet Score assessment, which both evaluates diet quality and identifies individual areas of improvement. Take the assessment here.

Read related topics:CSIRO Diet

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