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The Hidden Benefits of Christmas for Your Brain Health

The Christmas holidays bring people and families together to celebrate and reflect on the year gone by and look forward to the next.

It is the end of the days getting shorter and darker. It's mid-winter. And the days now get lighter by 15 minutes every week.

It's a time to recharge your batteries, to renew your mental and physical energy, to get ready for spring.

Have you noticed that the catkins and snowdrops are already out?

Not only is Christmas an important social, cultural and religious festival for people of all faiths (and none) but it is good for your brain and your mental health.

The sociologist Émile Durkheim used the term “collective effervescence” to describe the positive mood we feel when we take part in social activities that bring collective joy and make us feel part of a bigger community.

We see this collective effervescence at Christmas time. Connecting, laying down shared memories and bonding through familiar traditions and rituals leads to positive feelings that are experienced collectively, including greater altruism, goodwill and generosity.

This happens to such an extent that some have argued that ‘Christmas Cheer’ could be an emotion in its own right.

Festivities also often highlight the things we have to be grateful for, and this gratitude can also increase our sense of wellbeing. And even if we can’t be with loved ones, spending time catching up on the phone or online can help to boost our mood. Just reminiscing over past happy memories can make us feel happier in the present.

Celebrations can increase our appreciation for the positive times in our lives, and add to the  stores of positive emotion that we’ve built through memory.

More good news….

Christmas foods are good for your brain. They are full of brain boosting nutrients.

While taking care of your brain is important, it's just as important to not lose sight of the actual joy of eating during the holidays. Your brain will thrive on all the happy associations and spending time with loved ones.

It’s a dopamine and oxytocin binge.

Some foods your brain will be thankful for:

Snack on smoked salmon (or walnuts)

If your family likes to lay out a bowl of nuts and have a starter of smoked fish then your brain will love it. Fatty fish like salmon and nuts like walnuts are among the highest natural dietary sources of omega 3. Omega 3 is great for keeping your brain healthy, sharp and functioning well.
Smoked salmon is a great source of vitamins B12, B3, B6, B7, B5 and D, selenium, potassium and choline.

Tuck into the Turkey 

This traditional Christmas bird is packed with important nutrients: it’s high in protein, B vitamins, selenium, zinc and phosphorus, and is low in fat. It’s also rich in the amino acid tryptophan – a precursor to feel good hormone serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps improve your mood, feel happy, relaxed and sleepy.

A Dash of Cranberry Sauce 

The strong purply-red colour of cranberries (red cabbage too) comes from compounds that hold a wealth of nutritional powers, most importantly for your brain they are anti-inflammatory.
These natural plant compounds are capable of improving areas such as sustained attention and focus after consuming even a single portion of the food or drink containing them – and, in the longer term, result in improvements in memory and learning and to help slow down age-related memory loss.

Pile on the Parsnips

Rich in vitamins C, E, K and B1, B5, B6, B9 and minerals copper, calcium, potassium and manganese which are all crucial to optimal brain function. They are rich in fibre to boost your gut health too.

Make friends with some Brussel Sprouts

They are a fantastic traditional holiday vegetable that packs a ton of vitamins C and K, fibre and potassium. They help give you energy and include antioxidants which are great for brain health.

Cook up some roasted chestnuts

Chestnuts provide B vitamins that help improve mood and brain function. They have magnesium too which helps you feel calm and relaxed and improves cognitive function.

Nibble on some roasted nuts

Walnuts for their omegas and Brazil nuts for their vitamin E, selenium, B vitamins and minerals are the best for your brain.

Keep peeling your clementines

An excellent source of Vitamins C and B1, B6 and B9 which are vital for producing neurotransmitters and reducing inflammation

Pour plenty of hot chocolate

Is there anything better than sipping hot cocoa in front of a crackling fire?
Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, which help protect against brain decline. Plus, the delicious treat not only helps to boost endorphins but it also contributes to a positive mood with a dopamine boost too.

What if you are dreading it?

Christmas can be a joyful time of year for some people, through connecting to people they love and joining in with celebrations. But it can be a hard time of year for others, through feelings of obligation to family, social plans or an increase in feelings of loneliness and isolation.
What helps you to look after your mental health during the holiday period? 

Here are some ideas:

Reframing – How can you be your own best friend this Christmas?

  • Give yourself permission to do things your way
  • Keep your inner voice kind and forgiving
  • Remember that you are loved. YOU are wanted
  • Give yourself permission to be you
  • Think of it as a time of year to recharge and rest if you want to

Boundaries – what is your agenda this Christmas?

  • Balance your needs with those of others
  • Question what needs to happen - what would happen if it didn’t?
  • If you need time out for quiet and calm give yourself permission to find some space for you

Actions – what self-care and day to day activities can you keep doing?

  • Get as much time outside as you can 
  • Make time for yourself - meditate, read, listen, have a bath
  • FaceTime someone that makes you feel loved 
  • 5 minutes to yourself can be just what you need
  • If you struggle with sleep, stick as close as possible to your usual routine
  • Try to keep up with your self-care routine – exercise, sleep, socialise, walk outdoors
  • Create your own expectations, experiences and happiness.
  • If Christmas with your family can be tough then plan something to look forward to with your ‘chosen family’ for afterwards
  • Uncertainty may increase our stress or anxiety, so, take the time to think of a plan 
So if you want to get into the Christmas spirit, spend time doing festive activities which you enjoy, share your experiences with the people you love, and do whatever rituals make sense to you.

Remember Christmas is more than one day.

If science can give you anything this year, let it give you the gift of Christmas Cheer.

Take care

As seen in