Tuck in: a 1955 Christmas dinner. Photo: Getty
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Why festive indulgence is good for you

What should you do to stay happy and healthy this Christmas? You’ll like the first piece of advice: if you want to relax, you could try eating a big meal.

Too often, the season of cheer and goodwill generates a lot of the opposite. There’s the high-pressure shopping and the overeating and its associated guilt. Routines of trips to the gym and exercise classes quickly become a distant memory. Then you have all those relatives to deal with. Fortunately, we also have science. No end of laboratory resources have been dedicated to figuring out what happens to our bodies in stressful situations and how those consequences can be defused.

The first step is to know your enemy. Stress is devious. It makes it hard, for instance, to resist the temptation to overindulge in the sweet stuff. Experiments on rats have shown that their desire for sugar is amplified when stress hormones are high – they will work much harder than chilled-out rodents to get a sweet treat. Relaxation not only offers heightened immunity to temptation; it also gives you greater immunity to disease. The stress hormone cortisol impedes your immune response, making you more likely to succumb to winter bugs. Grandparents are particularly vulnerable here. In younger people, a hormone called DHEA counteracts cortisol’s effect on the immune system but the body produces much less DHEA once you are past 30. Those in their seventies are operating with about a fifth of the DHEA of their grandchildren – so kids should play nicely.

The older generation is also more deeply affected by stress. Experiments on three-month-old and 24-month-old rats have shown that the same repeated stresses increased levels of stress hormones far more in the oldies. Brain scans showed a further consequence: not only were the senior rats much more anxious, they were also far less able to control their emotional state. So if grandma gets a bit teary, that’s only to be expected.

What should you do to stay happy and healthy this Christmas? You’ll like the first piece of advice: if you want to relax, you could try eating a big meal. That nap you need after a turkey dinner is not your fault. Your impressive ingestion will give you raised blood glucose levels. This, it turns out, switches off the brain cells associated with alertness. If anyone challenges your need to rest your eyes for a few moments after your meal, tell them that evolution has equipped you with a switch that says, “It’s OK, everyone is full. All the hunter-gatherers should sleep now.”

If you’re struggling to relax after last-minute Christmas shopping, try some chocolate. Not Roses or Quality Street, though: you need dark chocolate, packed full of flavonoids. These stimulate the body to release nitric oxide, which relaxes the arteries and veins, lowering blood pressure.

The central message is: indulgence is good for you. For a start, smiling and laughing reduce the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream. But pleasure is its own tonic. Indulging in any pleasurable activity makes your cells release enkelytin, which will attack bacteria in your bloodstream.

Meanwhile, if you’ve only got a few days to get into the holiday spirit, moments of meditation could be your ticket. A 2003 study showed that the practice of t’ai chi – meditation through movement – can boost cellular immune responses by up to 50 per cent. That requires a bit of expertise; however, a number of studies suggest that various forms of gentle, repetitive exercise or ritual will send your stress levels tumbling.

Five days of a technique called “Integrated Body-Mind Training” (IBMT), for instance, put people in a better mood and enabled them to be more attentive to tasks than those given simple muscle relaxation training. When they were given mathematical puzzles to solve, the blood cortisol response – a stress measure – of IBMT trainees was lower, too.

The guru of relaxation is a man called Herbert Benson who, in the 1960s and 1970s, performed game-changing experiments proving the efficacy of certain relaxation techniques. His basic prescription is ten to 20 minutes of deep, controlled breathing while sitting in a relaxed position. The result is the “relaxation response”, a physiological change that, according to the peer-reviewed literature, can help with hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia, insomnia, infertility and anxiety.

Tempting as it might have been, Benson hasn’t just been chilling out since the 1970s. In 2012, he was part of a team that trialled the efficacy of relaxation gurus in virtual worlds such as Second Life. It turns out that they work, so if the holiday season gets too much, go online and find a relaxation tool for your phone to help you cope. Christmas? There’s an app for that. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis