Tuesday, January 01, 2013

By all means go dry for January, but it's worth knowing that 'detoxing' does nothing for your health

Hurrah! Peter Oborne has written an entertaining piece about why he's giving up alcohol for January: in essence, because he's worried that he is looking forward to that first drink of the day a bit much, and feeling the effects more than he used to. With the constant nagging background hangover and diffuse feelings of ill health that the end of the year brings, I suspect a lot of us will sympathise.

He's doing it as part of Alcohol Concern's "Dry January" campaign; the drink charity is trying to get people to do a sponsored month off the booze, to raise money for (I assume) getting even more people off the booze.

You'd be forgiven for being a bit tired of these sponsored months – we've barely seen the back of the damn moustaches – but if people feel it's a good cause, by all means do it. One thing that's probably worth being aware of, though, is that if you do it too, while you'll no doubt raise some cash, and perhaps save a few quid and lose a few pounds, there's very little reason to believe it will make you healthier in the long term.

Every January, hundreds of thousands of people take the month off the booze as a "detox". But your liver will not thank you for it, and in fact the whole concept of "detoxing" is little more than New Age nonsense, a modern penance for the sins of the year, which will do nothing for your long-term health. (Particularly idiotic are the "detox kits" that you can buy from various outlets, which are, as far as I can work out, purest quackery, especially anything which uses the word "quantum".)

When the annual January Detox Bandwagon rolled around last year, the British Liver Trust issued a statement pointing out that it was nonsense. They got a consultant hepatologist, Dr Mark Wright, to say: "Detoxing for just a month in January is medically futile. It can lead to a false sense of security and feeds the idea that you can abuse your liver as much as you like and then sort everything else with a quick fix.

"It makes about as much sense as maxing out your credit cards and overdraft all year, then thinking you can fix it by just eating toast in January. The figures just don't stack up."

Essentially, the liver is quite good at repairing itself, but it needs to do it fairly regularly. A few days off the sauce each week, as opposed to a month off every year, is what actual doctors recommend.

Feel free, then, to have a booze-free January. You may even find it makes you feel better and saves you some money. But be aware that it does nothing for your long-term health, and to be honest, if you need to take a month off the booze to prove you can do it (and especially if you require a financial incentive, albeit a charity-directed one, to do so), then you might want to think about your relationship with the stuff.

Anyway. Mine's a Talisker, please. Happy new year, everybody!


Can an unborn baby really taste curry?

Pregnancy is a time like no other for old wives’ tales. But which are true, and which are hokum?

Two-and-a-half years ago when I found myself pregnant, I was bursting with questions about my developing child. Each week I would obsessively scour pregnancy books and websites for details of what my little foetus could be expected to accomplish in the coming days, trying to build up a picture of what he or she was up to in there.

But although knowing my little one was growing fingernails that week was mildly interesting, none of the books told me what I really wanted to know: when would he or she become conscious? Could they feel the sensation of the ill-advised waltzer ride I took at the fairground, and would they remember it? Was there any truth to old wives’ tales such as “weird food cravings mean you’re having a boy”, or “if your bump is low, you’re having a girl”?

I was also bemused by conflicting advice on eating, drinking and exercise – eating too much may raise the baby’s risk of obesity or diabetes; or exercise could trigger a miscarriage – much of which seemed to fly in the face of common sense. Looking at online pregnancy forums, I realised that other women were asking similar questions, often falling back on anecdote and received wisdom.

The tipping point came when I was tucking into a chicken jalfrezi at an Indian restaurant, and felt my baby do a somersault. Could he or she taste what I was eating, and did they object to it? I had to find out.

As a reporter for New Scientist, I had access to the thousands of scientific journals that are published each month, and experience of making sense of them, so I began to hunt for the answers. What I discovered amazed and excited me. I learnt that some couples really are statistically more likely to have boys – those who already have three boys, or men with lots of brothers – although no one understands why. I discovered that unborn babies can see, hear, feel and remember experiences from their time in the womb, and that some of this may help prepare them for life on the outside. For instance, babies seem to remember certain sounds from their time in utero, so they may be less fazed by everyday things like a vacuum cleaner.

And babies probably can taste curry – or at least the garlic in curry – and this may make them more receptive to it when it is introduced to their diet later on. During late pregnancy they might even dream, for they experience far higher rates of REM sleep – when dreaming occurs – than we do as adults.

Even after our daughter, Matilda, was born, questions continued to prick at my mind. I learnt that controlled crying can teach a child to sleep through the night, but there are several other less extreme methods that are just as effective.

I discovered that, far from being born with a blank slate, babies already have some concept of who their mother is; what a human face looks like; and an appreciation of numbers and language. Newborn babies already seem capable of distinguishing their mothers’ voice from that of a stranger’s. They also seem to react to a happy tone of voice, and will cry in a melody befitting their natural tongue – so the intonation pattern of French babies’ cries mimics that of the French language, for example.

As far as numbers are concerned, they seem able to match a number of beeps to a similar number of visual objects – or at least notice if they don’t match up.

I became similarly well-read in the science of baby poo: what causes it to change colour or consistency, and just how many bacteria live in it. (None at birth, but around a trillion per millilitre by the end of the first month.)

I was also frequently angered by what I read. Contrary to what pregnant women are told, there is no strong evidence that eating peanuts, exercising or lying on your back during pregnancy harms the baby. Even the science underpinning government advice on how much alcohol it is safe to drink is far from clear cut. There’s no doubt that drinking large amounts of alcohol is harmful to unborn babies, but there is a massive grey zone concerning small to moderate amounts, where there’s little to no evidence that it causes harm – and even some evidence that small amounts may be beneficial.

Shortly after I had decided to turn my research into a book – Bumpology – I discovered that I was pregnant with my second child. This time it was a very different experience. The more I researched, the more I realised that much of what I had been told during my first pregnancy was not backed up by evidence.

This time around, I was still obsessed with the little person that was growing inside me and terrified of miscarriage during the early weeks. However, I took comfort in knowing that the oft-cited statistic of one in three pregnancies ending in miscarriage is a gross generalisation, and is probably irrelevant to the bulk of women, being based on a study that detected pregnancy at the earliest possible point, when many embryos will fail.

I was generally more relaxed about what I ate, but more vigilant about avoiding things like Camembert or drinking more than a couple of glasses of wine per week, even though I understood that the risks were relatively small. I think that sifting through the evidence and focusing on the handful of things that really can cause harm in pregnancy made me appreciate that it wasn’t such a big deal to give them up for nine months – whereas being told to avoid almost everything during my first pregnancy just made me cynical about pretty much all health advice.

However, what really incensed me was the discovery that much of what I’d been told by antenatal teachers, hypnobirthing instructors and even some midwives about birth during my first pregnancy, wasn’t necessarily borne out by the evidence.

For example, women are often told that having their labour artificially kick-started if they run past their due date will increase their chances of needing a caesarean or having their baby pulled out with forceps. But if you compare the relevant groups of women, being induced at 42 weeks of pregnancy actually decreases the risk of a caesarean compared to doing nothing and simply waiting for the baby to arrive of its own accord. I suspect that knowing this could significantly reduce anxiety levels – and curry consumption – among the pregnant population.

I also felt short-changed by those antenatal teachers who glossed over some of the less convenient truths about birth and early motherhood first time around, such as the risks of tearing during labour; the fact that many labours don’t run smoothly; and just how difficult breastfeeding can be.

I was beginning to think that some of this anger was misplaced, when only last week a terrified pregnant friend called to say that a midwife had told her that having an epidural to dull the pain of labour would mean she was more likely to need forceps to deliver her baby; and that if she gave birth in a midwife-run birthing centre, she would be unlikely to tear because they would make sure the baby was delivered slowly.

It is true that epidurals increase the risk of an instrumental delivery involving forceps, but only very slightly. In fact, around 20 women would need to have an epidural for just one to need an extra instrumental delivery, and not necessarily because the drugs make it harder to push, but because if you’re already anaesthetised you’re possibly more likely to be considered a candidate for a forceps delivery.

What’s more, no one can guarantee that you won’t tear during childbirth, and in skirting around this issue antenatal teachers often neglect to reassure women that tearing really isn’t that bad, or offer tips on how to promote healing if it does happen.

Meanwhile, I have been surprised by just how much remains unknown about pregnancy, birth and babies. Although several interesting theories exist, we still don’t know for sure what causes morning sickness – even though some women, like the Duchess of Cambridge, have to be hospitalised for it. It is still near-impossible to predict how long labour will last, or if a woman is likely to develop complications.

And although there is some preliminary evidence that stress during pregnancy results in more active and irritable babies, I’d love to know if relaxed mothers are more likely to have a chilled-out baby. Our second child, Max, was born in September, and so far (in my uncontrolled, unscientific study of two), this seems to be the case.

M y research has given me greater confidence that many of my instincts about motherhood are probably correct – or at least unlikely to cause harm – and as a result, I have been more laissez-faire about the whole thing. For now, at least, Max seems to share my relaxed attitude to babyhood, while energetic Matilda continues to run circles around all of us.

Pregnancy is a time of great wonder, and I still find it staggering that a single egg and sperm can meet and trigger this cascade of events that lead to a new little person being built. Having a baby can be one of the greatest joys that life bestows, but it is hard work. Parents-to-be can therefore do without any unnecessary guilt, anxiety or doubt.


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