Keep Your Brain Healthy During the Holidays by Edward Park, PhD
The holiday season is upon us—and when it comes to health and wellness at this time of year, we usually think of how to avoid the proverbial “five to seven pounds” of weight gain. While weight gain is worth keeping in mind, the holidays can have a more profound effect on the unseen aspects of our health. Did you know the holidays can take a high toll on our long-term brain health? To learn more, read on.
Why are the holidays so hard on our brains?
The brain is enormously complex, and its health is quite sensitive to lifestyle factors. In a sense, that’s good news. For instance, for those with a family history of neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s), we need to bear in mind that our genes are not our destiny. We can make choices to change the fate of our brain health. The problem is that over the holidays, we often adopt behaviors that make our brains vulnerable to damage:
We switch to a diet that favors excess sugar, more saturated fats, a higher carbohydrate load and high glycemic index foods.
We are more sedentary and live more of our lives indoors, thanks to colder weather and earlier nightfall.
We experience more stress as we entertain more guests, visit with family (especially where there is family conflict), manage depression and anxiety, and otherwise cope with the busiest time of year.
We deprive ourselves of sleep.
These disruptions can lead to long-lasting effects on the brain, including a greater risk of age-related brain disease and accelerated cognitive aging.
Build the “Six Pillars of Brain Health” into your holidays
Try adding the Six Pillars of Brain Health to your other numbered holiday traditions—like the 12 Days of Christmas or the Eight Days of Hanukkah. The Cleveland Clinic developed the Six Pillars framework to help us remember how to take care of our most important organ.
Diet is a powerful factor affecting brain health. Evidence points to the Mediterranean (MeDi) and MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diets as being excellent ways to eat to protect and strengthen your brain. Try to work MeDi and MIND foods into your holiday meals. Be sure to include:
Colorful vegetables and fruits, particularly leafy greens and berries
Extra virgin olive oil
Nuts and legumes
Also, limit excess sweets, processed carbohydrates and saturated fats. In particular, beware of too many holiday cocktails. Alcohol consumption is reported to increase up to 100% during the holidays. Since these extra calories promote damaging inflammation and metabolic stress on the brain, limiting intake is a crucial strategy. Try the following:
Use smaller plates to control portion sizes.
Have a snack before leaving for social events to stave off the overconsumption of unhealthy “party” food and alcohol.
Eat and drink mindfully: avoid distractions (e.g., TV or working while eating), focus on your senses—chewing, sipping, tasting, texture, smell—and your body’s cues of fullness.
You’ll avoid overeating while enhancing your enjoyment of family favorites—a win-win. For more information, see these SOULFUL Insights on foods beneficial to the brain (here) and foods that are bad for the brain (here). And don’t pass up the post on alcohol (here).
Sleep is essential for proper memory formation and waste removal from the brain. The holidays are particularly challenging to proper sleep thanks to additional social activities, work deadlines and late-night shopping (often online). We’ll inevitably lose some sleep, but we can minimize sleep disruptions with some simple approaches:
If you must stay up late, you’re likely spending that time on a computer or your phone, which can interfere with your circadian rhythm. Turn down the lights and minimize blue light exposure by using the warm-colored “nighttime” settings on your device or wearing blue light-blocking glasses.
Finish eating and drinking at least two hours before bedtime; this avoids disrupting the release of hormones that regulate sleep-wake cycles.
Exercise—it’s an excellent, evidence-backed way to improve sleep.
Move your body
Endurance and resistance exercises cause the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and metabolites that stimulate neuroplasticity (the creation, adaptation and survival of brain cells and their connections). Unfortunately, the holidays make it tempting to indulge in TV specials and other sedentary behavior rather than exercise. Resolve to stay active. Here are some suggestions:
Keep up with the exercise routine you already have; intentionally create a block on your calendar for exercise if you haven’t already.
Look for opportunities to do small activities; they can add up. It can be as simple as walking a bit more each day, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, volunteering for yard work or shoveling snow.
Participate in a holiday challenge like a “turkey trot” or a “Santa 5k.”
Control medical conditions that affect brain health
Type 2 diabetes can raise the risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease by over 50%. Cardiovascular diseases such as atrial fibrillation and atherosclerosis can raise the risk of dementia and cognitive decline by almost 60%. During the holidays, try the following:
Stay vigilant with your medications and health regimen, especially to manage diabetes or cardiovascular conditions.
Schedule a regular checkup with your doctor; it will serve as a reminder to keep chronic conditions in check.
Exercise your brain
Cognitive stimulation and training are critical to preserving our brain’s ability to adapt to challenges and delay the onset of symptoms of neurodegenerative conditions. Scientists call this “cognitive reserve.” People build their cognitive reserve through curiosity and intellectual pursuits—and having a deeper reserve enables the brain to better compensate for damage and continue functioning well. The holidays present unique opportunities to build more reserves. Here are a few examples:
Make or build gifts for others; projects like these require creativity, learning and planning.
Take up old talents to entertain family and friends, like singing or storytelling.
Engage in activities like reading, playing a musical instrument, attending cultural events and puzzles and games (e.g., crosswords or chess). The benefits of these kinds of activities are increasingly supported by clinical and epidemiological research.
Stay connected to people Ultimately, the brain is meant to help us survive and thrive in the context of relationships with the people around us. These activities add purpose to our lives. People with an extensive and robust social network and more significant social activity enjoy a lower risk of dementia and cognitive decline. Take advantage of the holidays to:
Meet new people (through volunteering, church attendance, work or other gatherings) and
Reconnect with family and friends; even if you’re unable to meet in person, a simple text exchange can bring joy to a person’s day.
Combining pillars is the key to success How can you be most efficient and effective at working the Six Pillars of Brain Health into your life during the holidays? By combining the pillars that are most important to you into single activities. Here are some examples of how to make good combinations:
Organize a game night when your family is in town. It builds relationships, learning and strategy (not to mention the cognitive challenge of having to convince family members to play!).
Commit to doing at least one charity or volunteer event. It’s a way to meet new people (relationships) and develop new skills, and it forces us to move.
Make a brain-healthy recipe with your family and loved ones. Cooking together drives social connectedness, learning, planning, movement and, of course, brain-healthy eating.
Combining the pillars is powerful. A groundbreaking randomized controlled trial with 1260 participants showed that a regimen of four pillars (diet, exercise, cognitive training and vascular risk monitoring) resulted in significantly better maintenance of cognitive function after two years. So, you can be confident that when you’re practicing the Six Pillars, you’re strengthening your brain and getting the most out of this holiday season!
Resources The full list of resources can be accessed here.
Edward Park, PhD
Edward Park is the founder of NeuroReserve, a preventive health and nutrition company focused on healthy brain aging. Ed’s career spans more than 15 years in the fields of nutritional therapeutics, biopharmaceuticals and medical devices, where he directed R&D, testing and regulatory approval of products to treat people malnourished by cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer and preterm birth.
Ed’s father’s history of neurodegenerative disease led him to brain health, where he realized the powerful role that nutrition and dietary patterns can play in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative conditions. This work inspired him to develop a new generation of nutritional products to strengthen long-term brain health and cognition. The NeuroReserve products are expert-designed, data analytics-driven and built on the best dietary evidence.
Ed holds a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow. He also holds an MS and an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As a special gift to SOULFUL Insights readers, NeuroReserve is offering a 15% discount on subscriptions and individual orders. Just use coupon SOULFOODSALON at checkout.
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