Give your Brain the Gift of Christmas

Author: FREYA STORER | 09 DEC 2021

It’s that time of year again…The heating finally goes on and our once empty hallways are decorated with scarves, coats and muddied boots. A warm cloud of breath escapes the mouth as we stroll down avenues of naked trees, occasionally catching a glimpse of that familiar, glittery fern in a bay window. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanza or your own version of a seasonal ritual, the festive season is punctuated by wholesome activities; consuming masses of food, cosying up with a Christmas film, and getting merry with family and friends. But before dreading  that post-holiday guilt due to the imminent extravagance, here are a few ways in which partaking in the festivities will help at least one of your organs, your brain!

Nostalgia

Returning home to the smell of your mum’s perfume, the sight of haphazardly placed photographs, and the (almost nagging) sound of “Driving Home for Christmas” will undoubtedly drum up a powerful sense of nostalgia – a bittersweet, yet whimsical experience triggered by memory retrieval at the presence of familiar objects, music, smells and even people. Regarded as an overwhelmingly positive experience, nostalgia can have a significant impact on neuronal health (Wildschut et al., 2006). For one, re-encountering these memory cues can cause changes in our brain chemistry. Some studies have found a connection between nostalgia and a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines – molecules that are associated with local inflammation (Matsunaga et al., 2013).

So, when you’re embarrassed to put on “Love Actually” for the gazillionth time, remember that you’re doing everyone’s brain a favour.

Equally, revisiting memories can stimulate metabolic activity and blood flow, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to many parts of the brain. This was demonstrated in a study in 2016, where researchers showed participants images relating to childhood and looked at their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Oba et al., 2016). This technology relies on visualising increases in blood-flow to areas of the brain that are ‘active’. The study found that “nostalgia-related activity” was localised to the memory (Hippocampus) and reward systems (Ventral Striatum) of the brain. When these reward centres are activated, they are flooded with dopamine – the feel-good hormone – which makes us feel good! Long-term this can increase psychological resilience and our sense of worth, and help decrease feelings of loneliness and depression (Dutcher & Creswell, 2018). However, this is not an invitation to go hunting for those embarrassing photos from your tweens, as the experience may not be as positive!

Socialising

It won’t come as a shock to hear that socialising with friends and family can have many perks for your physical and mental health. Recent studies have unveiled the potential benefits of connecting with others on boosting cognitive skills and lowering the risk of dementia (Fratiglioni et al. 2004; Age UK). We all vary in our desire for company but share a fundamental need to create positive relationships. Socialising can build our sense of worth, increase our happiness and well-being, and may even help us to live longer (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). Research shows that people who engage in regular leisure activities, both mental and social, better retain functional abilities during the ageing process (Wang et al., 2012). Studies have also found that sociable participants often perform better in tests of memory and other cognitive skills (Smith et al., 2018). Hot new data even suggests it can slow down cognitive decline, which is an exciting prospect despite the research only being in its infancy (Floud et al., 2021; Fratiglioni et al., 2004; Marioni et al., 2015). It is noted that people with active social lives may also lead more active physical lives, which carry a host of benefits, both mental and physical – so make sure to go on the post-banquet walk as it will double the impact. For optimal results, why not pull out a dusty game of trivial pursuit and put your cognitive abilities to the test whilst enjoying the company of others. Also, if you feel a carol coming on make sure to belt it out, as singing with company does wonders by engaging and exercising multiple areas of your brain at the same time (Osman et al., 2016; Shakespeare & Whieldon, 2018).

Treats

Arguably the best part of the festive season is tucking into a hearty meal (with the intermittent tipple). This culinary highlight provides a celebration of many traditional ingredients and allows us to treat ourselves after a hard year’s work. In fact, the concept of “treating ourselves” is very important for our mental health and is encouraged in individuals who suffer from clinical depression (Cancino-Montecinos et al., 2020; Cooper, 2019). In addition, there are hidden health benefits in your Christmas dinner. Compared to the average British meal, the dinner is well balanced – so make sure to pack your plate with variety over quantity. A traditional turkey is stuffed with nutrients such as protein and vitamin B, however it is also rich in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin which can aid in sleep and relaxation (Jenkins et al., 2016). For the vegetarian/vegan reader, a nut-roast could have even more benefits; being rich in essential fatty acids, it can promote cardiovascular health of the brain. Nuts are excellent brain-food, able to enhance cognition, memory, learning and other key brain functions. The best nut to include in your recipe is the humble walnut, containing a high concentration of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which boosts cognition and helps prevent age-related cognitive decline (Chauhan & Chauhan, 2020). Let us not forget the infamous sprout which in my opinion does not deserve the hate it gets, as it can be neuroprotective. Like other cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, watercress and kale, sprouts contain kaempferol, a type of flavonoid. Recent studies have linked flavonoids to decreased risk of developing dementia and protecting neurons against injury (Shishtar et al., 2020; Spencer, 2009). I guess this means we should reach for those delightful greens more often, but don’t forget the carrots for night-vision when you’re sneaking down the stairs for round 3 of the cheese board.

Overall, it’s easy to find yourself on the other side of New Year’s Eve, drenched in spirit-scented guilt, wondering to yourself why you always “overdo it”. But this year you can rest assured that a little jaunt down memory lane washed down with a guzzle of eggnog and a mince pie is nothing to be ashamed of and could in fact have benefits on your brain and mental health. So, when you’re embarrassed to put on “Love Actually” for the gazillionth time, remember that you’re doing everyone’s brain a favour.

Reviewed by: Matt and Uroosa

References

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Image credit: “★☆★ christmas ★☆★” by Puno3000 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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