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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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser