Thanks to the happy hormones, Christmas could boost your immune system

Eating nine brussel sprouts provides our daily vitamin C requirement

 

My fellow Health+Family columnist Damian Cullen loves the dietary splurge of Christmas, which poses a challenge to his thus far successful bid to lose weight and become fitter.

“It’s Christmas – and the endless advice from some experts to constantly, unwaveringly stick to a healthy regime does not sit well with my plans for the period,” he says (Health + Family, December 15th).

So Cullen plans his usual few days of overindulgence: “I’ve decided not to worry about what I eat and drink between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.”

He’s certainly not the only one to feel like this. Let’s see if we can find evidence to soften lingering guilt he and others might feel over the Christmas season.

First a word about hedonism. We all need a week when we can switch off and indulge ourselves.

While the calorie count will rise – the latest estimate for Christmas dinner is that we consume 6,000 calories during this meal alone – letting go for a few days should release additional endorphins and mood-enhancing neurotransmitters that will boost your immune system.

Are there dietary benefits to be found in a traditional festive dinner? Well, Brussels sprouts are packed with vitamin K, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium and magnesium. Eating nine sprouts provides half our daily requirement of folic acid and all our vitamin C needs.

Honey-baked ham and turkey do more than offer a sweet taste; they may be good for your heart. Honey contains antioxidants and helps prolong the freshness of meat . . . if there are any leftovers.

Antioxidants

Skinless roast turkey is low in fat and rich in protein. It is also high in selenium, which supports metabolism, zinc that can help boost immunity and vitamin B6 which aids energy production.

Ham is a good source of protein and also provides vitamin B, iron and zinc. Turkey is full of the amino acid trytophan, which is an essential ingredient of the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin.

Antioxidants, which mop up disease-causing compounds in the body, are plentiful in corn.

The herbs oregano, rosemary and thyme also score well in the antioxidant stakes.

So far, so predictable. But who would have thought that Christmas pudding is packed with potassium and a fair amount of iron and fibre?

And the health news for chocaholics continues to get better.

The dark stuff is definitely good for you – anything with more than 50 per cent cocoa has health benefits linked to some of the chemicals found in dark chocolate.

As well as trytophan, chocolate contains phenylethylamine. The body converts this to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps us experience pleasure.

Three to four squares of the darkest stuff is the ideal dose.

The medicinal use of cocoa has a long history, dating back almost 500 years.

Even before the arrival of Spanish explorer Cortés, Mayans and Aztecs took beans from the cacao tree and made a drink they called xocoatl.

The seeds of the cacao tree are rich in a class of polyphenol antioxidants known as flavonols.

Several epidemiologic studies designed to examine a possible protective effect of flavanols in cardiovascular disease have reported an inverse association – in other words, the more flavanol, the less disease.

A double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled clinical trial in patients with congestive heart failure compared the effect of commercially available flavanol-rich chocolate with cocoa-free control chocolate on vascular function.

The researchers demonstrated that flavanol-rich chocolate acutely improves vascular function and reduces platelet activity in patients with congestive heart failure.

Which brings me to the demon drink. A moderate alcohol intake is the key. And red wine still tops the alcohol health league.

It’s a topic I will explore in more detail in next week’s column. In the meantime, I hope readers enjoy a healthy and happy Christmas. mhouston@irishtimes.com @muirishouston

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