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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 December, 2003, 01:18 GMT
How Christmas can be good for you
By Pat Hagan

Harry Enfield
The festive spirit can give you a fillip
You might think Christmas has as much to do with good health as eating mince pies has to do with getting a six-pack.

But medical research has uncovered hidden benefits to the festive season. A handful of nuts and a good laugh in front of the telly, for example, will help protect you against diabetes and heart disease.

And the more Christmas cards you get, the happier you'll be, studies show.

"Christmas can be good for your physical and mental health," says Dr Ian Banks, a leading medical author and chairman of the Men's Health Forum.

"People try foods they would never normally eat, like figs and dates, and meet up with family members they don't normally see."

So what are the health secrets of Christmas and how do they make us feel better?

RECEIVING CARDS

Christmas cards
Christmas cards can give you a lift
A study of 87 men and women by psychologists at Pennsylvania State University, showed the more Christmas cards they received, the higher their levels of self-esteem and happiness - especially if they came from absent friends.

Researchers discovered the more cards people received, the more they had a sense of belonging that, in turn, had a beneficial effect on their mental health.

EATING CHOCOLATES

Next to Easter, Christmas is the perfect excuse for chocoholics to gorge themselves.

Several studies show there are health benefits to our favourite confectionery.

Last year, experts at the National Heart and Lung Institute in London discovered a chemical in chocolate called theobromine that can get rid of coughs.

Other studies suggest chocolate may even fight cancer.

But dark chocolate is best for your health as it can boost levels of antioxidants in the blood by 20%. Milk chocolate does not have the same effect.

GOING TO CHURCH

Church
Church is good for the soul
A Christmas prayer may do you the world of good.

A study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University revealed the more people prayed, the better their mental health.

Nearly 500 men and women took part in the survey which showed prayer helped many deal with stress, depression and anxiety.

A separate study, published in the British Medical Journal last year, suggested praying slows your breathing rate and has a calming effect on the heart.

EATING NUTS

You only ever see brazil nuts at Christmas. But maybe they should be a regular part of your diet - especially for women.

Earlier this year, University of Illinois scientists found brazil nuts may protect some women against breast cancer because they contain high levels of selenium.

The theory is that selenium boosts the effect of a cancer-fighting enzyme in women of a certain genetic make-up.

MEETING FRIENDS

Chatting with family and friends prevents dementia, according to research carried out at the University of Michigan.

It shows a natter is as good as reading or doing crosswords for keeping the brain healthy.

Scientists quizzed around 3,000 people aged between 24 and 96 on how regularly they spoke or met with friends and family.

Then they subjected them to a battery of tests to check their brainpower and memory.

The results revealed those who were more 'socially engaged' fared much better.

MISTELTOE

German scientists are developing an anti-cancer drug based on a protein found in mistletoe. It works by stimulating production of antibodies.

Extract of mistletoe is already reported to be a popular alternative cancer therapy in Germany but now the race is on, led by scientists at Hanover medical School, to develop it into a drug.

Trials are at an early stage but the key ingredient is a protein thought to have anti-cancer properties.

EATING CRANBERRY SAUCE

Despite making only an annual appearance at the Christmas dinner table, cranberry sauce is packed with health-giving properties.

Cranberries are already known to cure urinary infections, but earlier this year researchers from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania found drinking cranberry juice raised levels of 'good' cholesterol in the blood and slashed the risk of heart disease by up to 40%.

PLAYING BOARD GAMES

Board games
Good for harmony?
Assuming you don't get too competitive, a bit of friendly game playing can be a good thing.

Board games, playing cards and doing jigsaws can all prevent Alzheimer's in later life.

Neurology experts in the US have found they exercise the brain and keep it in good working order for longer.

EATING FIGS AND DATES

Both low in fat, high in fibre and a great source of potassium - which helps prevent strokes, says the British Nutrition Foundation.

Eat a satsuma at the same time and your body will absorb even more of the goodness.

LAUGHING

Watching Xmas specials of Only Fools and Horses or The Office could be as good for your heart as going to the gym.

Recent tests at the University of California showed men who watched a funny video experienced a 40% drop in levels of cortisol - a stress hormone linked with heart disease.

Even anticipating a funny event or show can raise levels of endorphins and pleasure-inducing hormones and lower production of stress hormones.




SEE ALSO:
Praying 'aids mental health'
12 Nov 99  |  Health
Cranberry juice beats infection
28 Jun 01  |  Health
Brazil nut mineral cancer claim
16 Jun 03  |  Health


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