four pairs of feet in cozy winter socks in front of a fireplace with a roaring fire

Live Vibrantly - December 16, 2022

How to Have a Brain-Healthy Winter Season

By Jessica Fredericksen

Winter is here! With it comes cold weather, shorter days and fun celebrations. While winter holidays often bring great joy, the season also has an impact on our brain health.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are Six Pillars of Brain Health: Physical Exercise, Nutrition, Restorative Sleep, Mental Fitness and Social Interaction. The excitement and stress of the holidays can impact several of these pillars.

Maybe we aren’t eating a balanced diet due to the steady offerings of delicious homemade cookies. Perhaps we’re staying up late doing last-minute gift wrapping or entertaining guests. Many of the activities we most look forward to can affect our brain health.

Also, some of us might find ourselves stressed, sad or experiencing some brain fog due to the colder weather or shorter days. Despite the fact that our brains may actually function better in cold weather, the reduced hours of sunlight can cause vitamin D deficiencies, which can impact our mood, episodic memory and cognition.

The good news is, there are plenty of great ways to incorporate some brain-healthy habits into our winter routines.

Get Moving & Get Outside

Walking can greatly improve your brain health by increasing circulation of oxygenated blood to your brain. If you have time in the middle of the day, consider taking a walk or spending a few minutes outside to gain some vitamin D from the sun when it is at its highest point.

To get a bit of exercise and get your heart rate up, walk around your neighborhood and look at holiday decorations or nature in its winter coat. Be sure to bundle up so you are protected from the cold. Check your local guidebooks to see what outdoor activities are in your area. If you find yourself in the local D.C. area, you can walk through the stunning Winter Lantern Festival at the Lerner Town Square in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.

Drink Hot Chocolate! (And Eat Other Brain-Healthy Foods)

Dark chocolate contains antioxidants, which help our brain create new healthy cells. Drink some hot chocolate using a dark chocolate mix for a cozy, brain health treat.

Some other great brain-healthy foods to eat during the winter months are cranberries, which can increase blood flow to the brain, and brussels sprouts, which can protect your brain against inflammation. Parsnips are high in folate and potassium, which strengthens connections between brain cells.

Sing Holiday Songs or Auld Lang Syne

Our brains remember music long after we’ve started to forget other information, so singing together can be a great way to connect, especially over the holidays. Additionally, singing activates multiple areas of our brain, which can improve speaking and memory.

A key pillar to brain health is moderating stress, and singing familiar songs can be an excellent stress reducer. Sing with friends and family for even more endorphins (a happy brain chemical that helps to reduce stress). Similar to exercise, singing can also increase blood flow to your brain and promote better brain function.

Make Time for Movie Night and Other Brain Breaks

Most of the time, we sit down on the couch to relax and watch a movie only when all of the other tasks on our to-do lists are done. Yet actually scheduling time to relax and tune into a fun movie can benefit your brain health.

When our brains do not have a chance to rest, we can feel overloaded and burnt out. Giving our brains a break can actually improve our focus and performance.

Ever struggle to find a solution to a problem, only to go and do something else and have the solution come to you? Giving our brains time to rest helps us free up space to think about problems in new ways and take in additional information.

Taking time to rest our brains during the day also helps us form new lasting memories, which is something we all strive to do, particularly when spending time with loved ones over the holidays. Everyone has different ways to destress and give our brains a break.

Whether it’s watching a movie, going for a walk in some wintery woods, or soaking in a warm tub with some peppermint essential oil, add relaxation to your winter to-do list.

Pick Your Favorite Holiday and Winter Traditions

We all know that reducing stress is a key pillar of brain health. At times, it might be overwhelming to try and fit in every holiday and winter tradition, so pick which traditions are the most important to you and your loved ones and make time for them.

Can’t decide? Make a list of what you usually do together with friends and family over the wintertime or the holidays and have everyone select their top one or two. This balances out expectations and ensures you can still spend special time together without getting to the point of burnout.

Participating in nostalgic and meaningful activities has a positive impact on our mood and can reduce stress. These traditions also meet our needs of connection and belonging. Many of our rituals and traditions are simply fun, which triggers the release of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. Traditions also help us to feel connected to not only those close to us, but also to those generations before and after us, fulfilling our need for deep connection and purpose.

Find a way to make your favorite traditions fit into your schedule without overbooking yourself! And make plans to renew traditions in the new year to ensure a balance of activity in January and beyond that will keep your mind and body active.

Create a Cozy Bedtime Routine

One brain health pillar that’s easy to forget is the need for restorative sleep. When we sleep, our brain has a chance to filter through and organize information taken in throughout the day, essentially cleaning itself out.

Whether our days are filled with activities, work, errands or caregiving responsibilities, we can find ourselves falling into bed at the end of the day and not taking time to ensure we are getting enough hours of sleep to fully restore our brains.

Getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult, but there are some tips to make falling asleep easier. Having a relaxing routine before you go to bed can be a great way to help your body learn to go to bed at the same time each night. Avoid large meals, alcohol and caffeine before bed. Try snuggling up with a blanket, some herbal tea or hot cider and a loved one or furry friend. This is the perfect time of year get cozy and read a good book.

Brain Health Throughout the Winter is Easier Than You Think!

These suggestions for how to fit brain health habits into your already busy winter schedule will help ensure you have a great winter season and beyond. In the cold months ahead, taking care of our brain health will be important to ensure we do not fall into the winter fog that sometimes happens in cold weather. Hopefully one of these ideas jumped out at you and you can try implementing a new brain health habit today!

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Goodwin Living Director of Brain Health Jessica Fredericksen, CDP, MSW, RCAL, joined Goodwin Living in early 2021 as Brain Health Program Manager. She is focused on advancing brain health and dementia awareness through education, the StrongerMemory program and serving on the Dementia Advance Team. Jessica is a Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP) with a Masters in Gerontological Social Work (MSW) from Washington University in St. Louis. Before joining Goodwin Living, she worked for an Assisted Living & Memory Care company in the Midwest where she gained experience as an Executive Director and Corporate Director of Community Excellence. When she’s not focused on brain health, Jessica enjoys volunteering with her church’s Youth Group and taking hikes with her cockapoo, Chloe Rose.

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