By Dr. Laura Pawlak
Thanksgiving and the many holidays that follow are joyful times to be with family and friends. Holiday cheer, a positive emotion, can also provide the brain with healthful hormones and neurochemicals that improve brain function.
Family traditions boost enjoyment of holiday gatherings. In a recent series of studies in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, subjects described the customs they followed — along with those of their families — during holidays. These activities were rated as enjoyable, personal experiences that enhanced bondings with family members. In fact, simply recalling past traditions can put a warm glow on holiday gatherings and support creative thinking.
Memories of childhood or lost loved ones often surface at celebrations. The bittersweet feeling of nostalgia can elevate mood and mental outlook. A recent study published in the journal, Emotion, reported that nostalgia boosts a sense of connection to the past, creating a social web that extends across people and time. This “self-continuity” energizes the brain. So, pull out an old photo album and spend some time revisiting your past this season.
When listing New Year’s resolutions, resolve to keep friendships alive throughout the year. The benefits of supportive relationships are numerous. Research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2016), stated that individuals who have greater levels of social support enjoy better psychological health and mental functioning. The reduction of chronic stress and the stimulation associated with meaningful social interaction are strongly linked to improved resilience and reduced risk of anxiety and depression. There is also a lower likelihood of cognitive decline.
The highlight of any holiday is food, often deeply entwined with tradition, but possibly devoid of brain-healthy choices. Compromises that allow both brain-healthy and traditionally-happy fare, including desserts, can solve this dilemma. First, shift the spotlight from rich food to lighter fare by serving salad as the first course. Go heavy on the greens, colored veggies, and crunchy bits of apples or pears. Second, make a healthy vegetable side dish the co-star of the main course. Third, regarding the turkey, think outside the bread box with offerings such as wild-rice stuffing, augmented with vegetables and dried cranberries. Lastly, the first bite of dessert, thoughtfully consumed, always gets rated as the best. Enjoy the fabulous taste of that bite! Then, empower your mind with oxygen — by taking a mindful walk — to complete the celebration of your brain.
Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita. She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.” On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.