By Andrea Bartels CNP NNCP RNT
14 Dec 2023
December activities put a lot of additional mental strain on those of us celebrating holidays. Planning, shopping, and attending social gatherings are just some of the activities added to our to-do lists. When stacked on top of our regular responsibilities, this can leave us feeling drained, foggy headed, or irritable. Here are a few tips on how to be nice to your brain this busy season and always:
Limit stimulation. Sights, sounds and smells can overwhelm some of us, especially in high concentration all at once. Although meditation is one of the top recommendations for calming the nervous system it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Thankfully, you can dial down brain stimulation simply by reducing your exposures. For example, when in places like airplanes, buses or your own home, consider wearing noise-cancelling headphones to eliminate surrounding noise--if safe to do so. Give your eyes and brain a break by closing your eyes while you think instead of staring at your computer or mobile device screen. Have that quiet place you can go to and use it.
Don’t be a couch potato. Holidays should be relaxing. But some studies show that binge-watching your favourite shows to ‘wind down’ is actually associated with greater stress, anxiety and depression compared to those who don’t binge-watch. The activity stimulates the release of dopamine—one of your brain’s stimulating neurotransmitters. Sounds fun, but after the show’s over, this stimulation can be followed by mental fatigue and a sense of let-down. Get up and get moving more often.
Take breaks. Have you ever noticed how lifeguards at your local pool or beach are on guard for only 15 to 20 minutes at a time? That’s because in a job like that, focus can mean the difference between life and death. According to neuroscientist David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania, when it comes to the brain, “vigilance is one of the areas most sensitive to fatigue.”
If your job is in the service industry and has you moving constantly---that of a postal worker or server, for example--- sit down for a while if you can. If you sit at a desk, get up every 30-60 minutes and move around for a minute or two. No matter what your regular position is, shifting to a new task is refreshing for the brain and may help you feel more creative and productive when you head back to your work.
Exercise. Among the multitude of benefits derived from exercise is increased brain health. Moderate exercise produces measurable increases blood flow to the brain and is associated with an increased cerebral cortex thickness—as well as nerve fiber quality: all good things for the brain’s functioning.
Get outside. Although studies haven’t yet determined how exactly spending time outdoors helps the brain, plenty of research has linked being in nature with improvements in mood and energy. This could take the form of walking, skiing through a forest, or simply sitting on a park bench. Ideally, you’ll do this away from urban noise, but if that’s not possible pick a quieter time of day. Just make sure you’re dressed for the weather to maximize your enjoyment of the experience.
Delegate activities. Decision-making is one of the most brain-intensive activities that we do daily. Whether in your personal or professional life, consider letting others you trust make some of the decisions and complete the related activities, wherever possible. Ask your family members for ‘wish lists’ to take the guesswork out of what to buy for them. Request a food contribution from guests, making the meal a potluck so you don’t have to do all the shopping and cooking yourself. After all, ‘tis the season for giving.
Avoid over-indulgence, but don’t starve yourself: True: the holiday season is a time to celebrate, and treats can be a part of that. The top brain-unfriendly items to limit are what Optimum Nutrition For the Mind author Patrick Holford calls “brain-agers”: alcohol, sugar, fried foods, MSG and aspartame. But don’t skip meals because this typically tanks our blood sugar, leaving the brain with a deficit of fuel. The result? Fatigue and irritability. Snacking consciously on whole foods like fruit with nuts provides a steadier energy supply for the brain’s functions.
Keep Hydrated: Almost 75% of the brain is water. Water is the vehicle that transports many of our essential nutrients into our cells and removes wastes from our bodies. This may be part of the reason research shows better hydration is associated with faster decision-making, better concentration, higher test scores on exams, enhanced short-term memory, improved focus, better sleep, decreased mental fatigue and improved learning. Flavour your water with cucumbers, lemon, lime, some festive frozen cranberries or make yourself a herbal non-caffeinated tea if that tastes more fun to you.
Support your ATP production. ATP is the energy created by every cell to fuel a myriad of functions that keep living cells working for us. Where does it come from? ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is a nucleotide derived from an activated form of niacin (vitamin B3). Niacin is converted into NMN, then into NADH—the ‘spark plug’ for energy production in every cell. This is the nearest precursor to ATP. Since the brain uses more ATP than any other organ in the body, it makes sense to supplement a stabilized form of NADH to support improve mental energy levels—especially starting in mid-life when the body’s production of NADH is winding down. An NADH supplement like Pure Lab’s NADH Slow Release 20 mg can be taken upon wake up to support the brain’s energy levels, supporting productivity throughout the day in just one dose.
Get decent sleep: Although it may temporarily feel good to stay up late and write those holiday cards, bake those cookies or wrap those presents, you’ll likely pay for it the next day in the way of fatigue. Nothing restores energy like sleep---which is vital to our productivity and focus during the day. That’s because sleep is when our cerebrospinal fluid gets detoxified by our glymphatic system (this is different from our lymphatic system, but has a similar function). So whether it’s a solid 8 hours or a shorter sleep supplemented with a cat nap, indulge. If you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep, consider using an l-theanine supplement in the evening to support relaxation. L-theanine can be used in conjunction with a melatonin supplement to help reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and reduce the number of night time wake-ups.
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Holford, Patrick. Optimum Nutrition for the Mind. Laguna Beach, Ca: Basic Health Publications Inc., 2009.
National Institutes of Health. “How Sleep Clears the Brain”. October 28 2013. Accessed online Dec 12, 2023.
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Xie, N., Zhang, L., Gao, W. et al. NAD+ metabolism: pathophysiologic mechanisms and therapeutic potential. Sig Transduct Target Ther 5, 227 (2020).
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