As first published on Metro.co.uk here
Cast your mind back to a time when you could go on a night out. You’d start with a G&T or a glass of bubbles as you put on your mascara. Then, drinks out at a bar: a couple of cocktails or pints of lager.
It could easily end up with Jagers on the dancefloor, or tequila shots at an afterparty – and most likely, a nauseous train journey to work the next morning, or a full English fry-up to kick off a Saturday on the sofa. Alcohol is ingrained into the way that we socialise. 82% of British adults drink alcohol regularly and our obsession with ‘the pub’ made itself painfully clear as lockdowns came and went – alongside trips to the local boozer – throughout 2020.
Yet there’s growing cultural awareness about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.
Alcohol Change UK reports a steady rise in non-drinkers between the ages of 16 and 24, and the non-profit predicted that 6.5 million people would take part in Dry January this month.
That’s up from 3.9 million in 2020, and just 4,000 when the concept launched in 2013. However, many of us have scrapped Dry January as we struggle with the latest UK lockdown.
YouGov figures found that a third of people pledging to stay off booze this month had given up in the first week, and Waitrose beer sales were up 49% after week one of lockdown. For many of us, to give up alcohol under lockdown is to lose one of the remaining small pleasures getting us through it.
But the British public is caught in an arm wrestle between the knowledge that alcohol is harmful – in 2019, alcohol-related hospital admissions in the UK had reached an annual peak of 1.26 million – and the fact that drinking it is so pervasive in our society.
For many, it’s also very enjoyable. There could be a solution to all this. What if we told you that you could enjoy all the positive effects of alcohol, but end up with no hangover or damage to your health? It sounds like something from a sci-fi, but a drink like this has been invented.
You can buy it online right now. Sentia Spirits is the brainchild of David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. Once a government drugs advisor, Nutt was sacked in 2009 for highlighting what he calls the hypocrisy of drug policy in the UK.
Famously, he presented evidence that alcohol is more harmful to society than heroin or crack. ‘Alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK,’ says Nutt, now. ‘It’s the most common drug that we encounter causing damage to people, in every branch of medicine. As a doctor and scientist, my life’s work has been trying to reduce the damage of alcohol – and this is a way of doing it.’
The science behind Sentia
Sentia is a non-alcoholic drink made of a licensed, ‘Botanical GABAergic Blend’ from Nutt’s team at GABA Labs. There are other botanical drinks on the market – such as Three Spirit Drinks, which uses ingredients including cacao and lion’s mane for mood-boosting, energising effects. Not to mention the slew of non-alcoholic beers, wines and spirits already flooding the market. But Sentia does much more than mimic the taste and texture of an alcoholic spirit: it actually gets you tipsy. The magic recipe has been developed from decades of scientific research into the way that alcohol affects the brain. ‘Sentia is the first drink to replicate the pro-social effects of alcohol, by targeting the brain system that mediates them,’ David tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It started in 1980 when I was doing my PhD. I discovered an antidote to alcohol and thought, this is amazing – you could take it at the end of a night out, get sober and find your way home. ‘But my professor said, what’s the point of that? Isn’t the alcohol still going to be killing your liver? And won’t people just drink more? ‘Nevertheless, it was the first step into discovering how alcohol works in your brain. ‘The main calming transmitter in your brain is called GABA [gamma-Aminobutyric acid]. Alcohol enhances GABA, which is why it relaxes you and makes you more convivial.
‘Over the last 40 years or so we’ve been working to understand the GABA system in the brain. It turns out it’s a very sophisticated system with multiple parts, and alcohol stimulates tem all. We’re trying to stimulate the good effects of alcohol, without the bad.’ This research has branched into two directions. The long-term project is the invention of a synthesised, alcohol-alternative molecule.
Then there’s Sentia: the herbal alternative, which took the past two years to create. ‘Hopefully it’ll raise enough money to fund the more expensive, chemistry part,’ says David. ‘We’re in the process of raising funds to take the molecules through safety testing, so they can become foodstuffs ingredients in a few years’ time, but that costs millions of pounds. ‘So to raise that money and develop the concept, we started looking for botanical ingredients that would work in a similar way to GABA.
We identified four plants that in combination, and with uptake enhancers, produced this effect. ‘All the ingredients are either foods or food additives, so they’re covered by safety standards already.’
The herbal combination is top secret for now, but we managed to get our hands on a bottle.
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