In August 2023, a Russian influencer living in Malaysia died unexpectedly. She was 39 years old. Zhana Samsonova spread an exclusively vegan diet to her 600,000 followers on social media. Her friend and neighbor claimed that the cause was supposedly hunger.
A month earlier, German fitness influencer Jo Lindner succumbed to a bulging artery. Three days before her death she had complained of pain in her neck. Lindner posted about her diet, her exercise routines, and photos of her incredibly chiseled body to her nine million Instagram followers. She had undergone hernia surgery and had undergone testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). She was 30 years old.
In recent years, cases of unexpected death among young people following extreme diets or exercise regimens have been reported around the world. Mishti Mukherjee, an Indian actress, died at the age of 27 due to kidney failure. She had reportedly been following a strict, protein-rich Keto diet for longer than stipulated, which is known to put a strain on the liver and kidneys. A 21-year-old Chinese influencer who aimed to lose more than 50 pounds in two months reportedly died from extreme diet and exercise routines.
Unhealthy and unrealistic trends promoting extreme weight loss and exercise routines have led to chronic fatigue and exhaustion, imbalance in nutrients, electrolytes and critical biochemicals, pressure and damage to vital organs and even death. Samsonova’s all-vegan diet, based on jackfruit, durian and without water, would have caused critical drops in levels of B complex, vitamin D, calcium and iron, among several other minerals and nutrients that the body needs to function.
The key word here is “extreme.” But, under a barrage of diverse and often experimental opinions about diets on social media, what is the line to follow and where does it end? Is there a correct diet to follow?
Researchers at the University of Cork, Ireland, developed a specific diet and observed the results in a test group for four weeks. They found an increase in good bacteria in the gut of participants who followed the diet. They also found a significant reduction in stress in these adults. The diet consisted of whole grains, legumes, fermented foods, fruits and vegetables rich in fiber and nutrients throughout the day, practically a normal and traditional diet in many areas of the world.
There are two points to highlight from this study. The first is the food itself. Despite all the mumbo-jumbo about special diets, the emphasis on fresh and varied food, in line with family or cultural traditions, seems more balanced and suitable for each individual. These are what many of us in our forties and fifties have eaten as children. As we age, we want to reduce portions more than make drastic changes in what we eat. Schedules are also important (eating at set times and finishing dinner early) to maintain the right balance between health and weight, in addition to a light but regular exercise routine.
The second point to highlight in the previous study is the reduction of stress through diet. In what has been called the “gut-brain microbiota axis,” scientists are increasingly beginning to point out the effects of a direct connection between food and emotions.
In a complementary experiment, germ-free mice from a sterile environment were fed a probiotic, causing an increase in good bacteria in their abdominal tract. They observed that the mice were noticeably less reactive to stress, anxiety and depression.
Research on gut and brain imaging studies largely reveals how this works.
It is estimated that human beings have approximately 100 trillion microbes in the intestine divided into a few thousand species. (For comparison, the human body has about 30 trillion human cells.) The foods we eat influence the bacteria and microbiome in the gut. Good bacteria, through a balanced diet, generate chemicals that lead to better absorption and digestion, which, in turn, determines our energy levels. The abdomen is often referred to as the engine of the body. But aside from how happy we feel or how much stamina we have, the gut-brain axis seems to influence how we experience sensations and emotions.
We know that the gut is susceptible to mood. When we are stressed or anxious, the gut is first affected. People who think too much usually have a weak stomach. Furthermore, through that strong “instinct,” we feel stress and fear at work consciously in the gut, even before the brain has actively noticed it. With its 500 million neurons, the intestine is very sensitive when it comes to registering and responding to certain emotions.
But the microbiota of the gut-brain axis equally focuses on the gut as a driving agent, rather than a recipient, of what we feel and how we feel. The intestine is an important contributor to the production of important neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Serotonin contributes to our feeling of well-being and helps the biological clock function. 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by the gut microbiome. GABA, produced largely by the microbiota of the abdominal tract, helps control feelings of anxiety and fear. Put a stop to these feelings.
Changes in GABA level have been linked to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and autism. Good bacteria, specifically the lactic acid bacillus, contribute to the generation of biochemical substances that, as we now know, directly affect mood.
If the intestine is in good shape, that is the signal transmitted and picked up by the brain as well.
This communication between the brain and the intestine is facilitated by a network of cranial nerves. The longest of these is the vagus nerve, which originates in the brain stem and continues to the organs of the chest and abdomen. It transmits messages in both directions, signaling changes in these areas to the brain and vice versa.
From here, scientists are observing, reporting and experimenting with how changing microbes in the gut can directly alter and influence our emotional and mental health. In a new field called Psychobiotics, the emphasis is on finding means to treat and relieve depression and anxiety through changes to our diet, rather than just medications.
Interestingly, the idea that good gut bacteria can alleviate the symptoms of melancholy was first propagated by JPG Phillips in 1910. It took scientists a century to piece together the fact that the gut-brain axis is a critical pathway for the treatment and prevention of melancholy. clinical depression, among other mood disorders.
As science gathers more evidence on this approach, here are some conclusions to consider: a balanced diet (the one our grandparents ate) is good for the body; fasting once a week (like Rishi Sunak does!) gives the gut a chance to recover and/or rest; Portions are critical. Small portions throughout the day, or stopping eating before pressing the full button, help the intestine digest food better and more efficiently. Meal times matter as much as what we eat. Diets can be tried, but for short, stipulated periods of time.
Finally, the corollary of “we are what we think” and “we are what we eat” may well be, in the end, “what we eat is what we feel.” And think.”
This article is written by Vandana Kohli, Entrepreneur, Filmmaker and Author, New Delhi.