Boost your brainpower and overall health by partaking in time-honored activities.
By Jeanie McKay
Whether they include hanging a timeworn star on top of a Christmas tree, lighting candles on an heirloom menorah, or playing African drums in honor of Kwanzaa, seasonal traditions find their way into most people’s homes or RVs this time of year.
When we were children, excitement over the coming holidays filled the air. Some parents helped us pass the days by having us open doors on Advent calendars or letting us remove a red or green construction paper link from a long chain representing the 25 days until Christmas.
As we’ve grown older, however, that childlike anticipation has diminished for many people. We still thumb through gift catalogs, but now that we are adults, we add up the cost of gift-giving. When the beautiful holiday issues of magazines arrive, we feel guilty, because our decorating doesn’t compare to what we see in the photographs. The magazine articles also tend to depress us. The focus seems to be on survival tips for the holiday blues, family feuds, and how to avoid overeating. As though that is not enough, the news media chimes in with warnings about allergies induced by Christmas trees, fires caused by holiday candles, and the dangers of lead in holiday lights. The negativity surrounding the season these days can make you want to forget it all and shout, “Bah, humbug!”
Although you may find it surprising, a healthy dose of holiday magic may be just what the doctor ordered. Regardless of which traditions you observe in December, the health benefits for your body and brain should be reason enough for a joyful celebration. Believe it or not, nearly every aspect of the holiday season offers something good for you.
Whether you spend the holidays in a regular house or nestled cozily inside your home on wheels, you most likely will put out some seasonal decorations. When you unwrap the hand-blown glass ornament Mother gave you, or set the priceless menorah on your table, your brain goes into a recall mode. It works hard to awaken long-unused neural associations. Recalling events from the past exercises your brain in a healthy way. And whether your decorations are gaudy or elegant, traditional or kitschy, the act of holiday decorating is very healthful, because such creativity stimulates dormant areas on the right hemisphere of your brain.
When you drive around town during the dark month of December, you’ll likely see strands of colorful lights everywhere, and especially in the campground. Whether you personally like the tradition or think the lights are tacky, your brain will enjoy the stimulation and novelty of unexpected new sights.
Since the dawn of time, our ancestors have been drawn to light. Ever since early humans lived in caves and started fires by rubbing sticks together, they found that staring at the flickering flames was calming. Many of us enjoy lighting fires and candles during the winter holidays, and we relax in the ambience. Why does that happen? The flames in fireplaces and candles flicker at a frequency that matches your brainwave pattern. The very act of burning candles and sitting by the fireplace can help to lower your blood pressure and reduce the stress that accumulates during the busy holiday season.
Appreciating The Music
Whether your preference is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” selections from Handel’s Messiah, “Ma’oz Tzur,” or tribal African music, seasonal music is beneficial to your health. As you listen to time-honored seasonal music, your brain becomes stimulated by the vivid memories it evokes. As you grow older, exercising your brain’s recall muscles is increasingly important. Listening to holiday favorites, your brain is forced to recapture memories of people, places, and emotions long stored, but not forgotten.
Music provides you with more healthful benefits if you sing along. Making music together bonds families and friends and makes new emotional connections. Research studies also prove that when you belt out songs from deep within your chest or abdomen “” not just your throat “” you increase your oxygen supply and stimulate your circulation. Your energy level increases as a result. Singing also may decrease your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and alleviate stress as well.
The Alzheimer’s Society in England founded a “Singing for the Brain” program for people suffering from dementia. The program was created after researchers discovered that the part of the brain that processes speech is different from the part that processes music. Amazingly, people who can no longer sing can continue to enjoy music. However, many people with Alzheimer’s disease often can remember tunes, and surprisingly, they are frequently able to recall enough words of beloved songs to sing along.
Writing And Receiving Holiday Cards
Sending holiday cards is a seasonal activity many of us dread. After all, it takes a lot of time and effort to create mailing lists, write messages, stuff envelopes, and apply stamps. Psychologists at several universities have studied people’s reactions to holiday cards. They report that people who receive the most holiday cards exhibit the highest level of self-esteem and happiness. The sense of being remembered and belonging has an extremely beneficial effect on mental health.
On the other hand, someone has to initiate that happy-making process. When you create your list of family and friends to whom you will send cards, you are forced to jog your memory, and that is a good thing. If you sign your name to the card only, the overall health benefits are slim. But if you sit down and compose a personal or reproducible letter that summarizes the year and boasts about the world’s smartest, best-looking grandchildren, the benefits start coming back to you, the sender. The act of writing requires you to exercise your memory and think sequentially. As you write, you also provide the language area of your brain with a big power boost.
Socializing With Family And Friends
In most neighborhoods and RV communities, friends and families tend to get together more during the month of December. Researchers have begun to study the effects of socialization on health as people grow older. They are discovering that people who are socially engaged perform much better on memory tests than those who lead isolated lives. Regular chats and visits with family and friends appear to be a good antidote to dementia.
Neurologists stress that playing board games and cards is a healthy socialization activity. Assuming that you don’t get too competitive, you most likely will laugh as you play. The endorphins you produce during laughter tend to reduce the brain-deteriorating effects of cortisol and other unhealthful chemicals that impact your immunity as well. That’s an important plus during the cold and flu season! Even watching funny movies can increase healthy endorphins and boost your immunity.
Exchanging gifts is customary in all end-of-the-year seasonal traditions, but is it more blessed to give or to receive? Your body and brain actually benefit from both. The brains of children and adults thrive on novelty and the elements of surprise. Who among us doesn’t smile and feel delighted when we receive a present?
Although most adults have plenty of stuff, most of us never quite outgrow the childlike fascination associated with a beautifully wrapped box with our name on the tag. Whether the box contains something useful or not, in a way, it doesn’t matter. We all crave attention, thoughtfulness, and love.
While receiving is good for our mental health, scientists report that it is actually more blessed to give. Researchers believe that we benefit simply from being nice. When we make other people feel good, we receive what some experts call a “helper’s high.” During the holiday season our thoughts often turn to those less fortunate, and we tend to give more to others. Such unselfish giving fills the giver with happiness and joy. That feeling has a positive impact on the chemicals that circulate through our bodies and brains.
Most of us aren’t satisfied just being full of seasonal happiness, however. We want to be full of good food, too. The holidays simply would not be complete without the tasty foods that traditionally grace our dining tables.
Regardless of the tradition, seasonal foods tend to be irresistible. They not only taste good, they smell good, too. Just think of the scent of eggnog permeating the kitchen or the heavenly smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven. Scientists tell us that the scent of vanilla (an ingredient found in many cookie recipes) reduces anxiety. The scent of cinnamon, clove, thyme, oregano, and cumin used in many seasonal dishes stimulates our minds and is proven to temporarily enhance the cognitive processing abilities of our brains.
Many indulgent holiday foods are not only pungent and flavorful, they are also packed with healthful nutrients. Take the proverbial fruitcake, for example. These cakes originated during Roman times (some joke that the originals are still being passed around), and consider their prime ingredients: dates, figs, prunes, other dried fruits, and nuts. These little wonders are low in fat and high in fiber. Plus, they are a wonderful source of potassium, and this nutrient is important in the prevention of strokes.
Ponder your favorite holiday pies for a minute. Pecan and pumpkin pies seem to reign at many holiday tables. Pecans are rich in more than 19 minerals and vitamins. Like almonds and walnuts, these nuts provide heart-healthy properties and reduce total blood cholesterol, reduce LDL cholesterol, and create clearer arterial flow. Pumpkins brim with good nutrition and promising health benefits as well. They are packed with the antioxidant beta carotene, which can help improve immune function and reduce the risk of chronic disease and cancer.
The heavenly scent of peppermint contained in candy canes increases the beta waves associated with alertness in your brain. Neurologists report that the aroma has the same effect as a whiff of smelling salts. In addition, peppermint is also an appetite suppressant. It’s nice to know you can grab a candy cane before your next potluck, and you’ll be sharp and able to head off an out-of-control chow session.
Dark chocolate boosts the levels of antioxidants in your blood by 20 percent. This dark, sweet wonder is also helpful in the prevention of heart attacks and strokes. It acts somewhat like an aspirin does in reducing platelet stickiness.
By the way, cranberries aren’t just for Thanksgiving anymore. These small berries are nutritional powerhouses filled with health-giving properties. Cranberries possess anti-inflammatory properties that help to combat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and cancer.
Although there is a downside to eating gigantic helpings of gravy-laden mashed potatoes, sugary pastries, or oil-soaked latkes, such foods add to the enjoyment of seasonal traditions. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, most people only gain slightly more than one pound between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The good news is that as long as you drop the weight soon after the beginning of the New Year, you won’t have to feel much guilt if you enjoy good food and get a little carried away with the spirit of the season.
But what about the real “spirits” of the season? By now everyone has been warned about the dangers of over-imbibing alcohol at any time. But the winter holiday season will normally include a toast or two or three. Even in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the good-hearted Bob Cratchit proposes a toast to his cold-hearted boss.
The holiday “toasting” tradition began when the Anglo-Saxons ruled England. Hot, mulled, and spicy ales were served from large, decorative bowls. A piece of flavored toast floated on top of the drink. People gathered around the common bowl to share the drink. When the drink was served, everyone lifted a cup and recited the words “Waes hael,” which means “good health.” Over time the ale eventually became known as “wassail.”
Instead of feeling distressed about the holidays, remember that there are many hidden benefits and blessings to be found in every tradition of the season. So this year, be merry. Here is to your happiness and good health. “Waes hael!”
Jeanie McKay is a corporate trainer and geriatric wellness specialist. She presents Octane for the Brain seminars (www.octaneforthebrain-seminars.com) at FMCA international conventions. She also is the creator of Rally Ho! The Travel Trivia Game for RVers, available from MindZone Publishing Inc. at www.rallyho-rvgame.com.