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Christmas And The Healthy Brain

The holidays are in full swing now and my prayer is that you are enjoying them in good health and joy.

As 2018 winds to a close and we step into 2019, I’ve been thinking a lot about your brain. After all, your brain is the hub of all wellness – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and others. As we’ve said here so many times, wellness is not just a properly-aligned spine or a nutritious diet; it’s a multi-faceted gem that touches every area of your life.

Your brain is not your mind, but they are intertwined. Your brain is a physical organ made up of fat, glucose, and water cells. As such, it can be affected by chemical interactions in the body as much as it drives those interactions. A thought is as much a chemical process as a spiritual one.

It is one of the deep mysteries of the world: what is thought and where does it come from? But I digress.

Thinking, Health, and Depression

Your health can affect your thoughts and your thoughts can affect your health. If you’ve ever gotten butterflies preparing for a public speaking engagement, you know they are linked. We’ve talked recently about depression here, and it is important to consider as we move through the holidays, because the holidays are a time when thoughts and emotions come into sharp relief.

I realize that this is kind of a heavy topic to address during the most wonderful time of the year.  After all, the holidays are supposed to be a time to talk about joy and fun things. But it’s especially important now, and especially if you have an older loved one.

Our friends at had this to say about it:

“In a 2010 study in the journal Neurology Doctor Jane Saczynski of the University of Massachusetts, found that depression at a younger age is a significant risk factor for dementia. While the reasons are unclear, she speculated that inflammation that occurs when a person is depressed may be a contributing factor. In addition, certain proteins found in the brain increase with depression; these also may be increasing the risk of dementia.”

Why The Holidays?

Because the holidays are a time of such intense emotions, and because the incidence and intensity of depression seem to spike around the holidays, their impact on brain health is particularly important to consider.

The longer I’m on this earth, the more I am convinced that it’s not enough to wish each other a Merry Christmas. We need to find joy — and help each other find joy — in tangible ways. Our wellness depends on it.

Even if depression is not a normal condition for you, if you experience depression (or even just “the holiday blues“) during the holidays, you need to fight it. But that doesn’t mean I want you to jack yourself up on antidepressants. There is no shame if you and your psychologist feel that antidepressants are necessary and good, but there is a better way.

Fight The Holiday Blues With A Healthy Brain

Here are a couple of tips I can give you to help keep your emotions and your brain healthy during the holidays:

Get Some Exercise

One of the root causes of depression is the imbalance of certain neurotransmittersresearch especially points to deficiencies of:

  • serotonin (controls sleep, aggression, sexuality, appetite, mood)
  • dopamine (pleasure and rewards)
  • norepinephrine (stress management)

Interestingly, over a century of research (plus my own personal experience) has shown exercise to be a predictable, long-lasting treatment for depression. Why? Part of it is because exercise stimulates the production of the very neurotransmitters that are deficient in depressed people.

That’s why I urge all of my patients who are pastors, executives, or others in positions of high responsibility to exercise consistently. If you are stressed out, you have to get it out of your system. If you don’t release the tension in a safe, natural way, you will release it in a destructive way — either through violent outbursts or depression. Autopsies of people who lived in unmanaged stress usually show that their brains were lacking in stress-managing norepinephrine.

In this short article, I outlined a simple, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout. HIIT is powerful because it ramps the heart rate up to a very high level very quickly and gives it adequate rest in short bursts. Most of the research I’ve seen on it demonstrates that it is far preferable to jogging or long-duration exercise. You can do four or five rounds of HIIT activity in under 15 minutes and get on with your day. Your body will flood with positive neurotransmitters and you can face the day in a better mood.

Get Your B-Vitamins

All of the vitamins are critical for your health. You may have seen them on the label of your multivitamin. Vitamins B1 (Thiamin) and B2 (Riboflavin) help your body extract energy from your food as you digest and keeps your nervous system and eyes healthy. Vitamin B6 (pyroxidine) converts protein and carbohydrates in your food to useable energy and builds hemoglobin cells in your blood that carry oxygen to your organs.

But for brain health, the two most important are Vitamin B9 (Folate) and B12 (Cobalamin) because they work together to build healthy red blood cells and are important nutrients for maintaining a healthy brain.

Especially Vitamins B9 and B12

Our bodies don’t store Vitamins B9 and B12, and B12 isn’t found in fruits, vegetables, or grains so we need a consistent daily helping of animal products like meat, fish, milk, cheese, and eggs. You’ll often hear about vegans running low on energy because their bodies aren’t getting adequate B12 from their diet. I know several people who take liquid Vitamin B12 drops under their tongue because it is such a large molecule that it doesn’t absorb into the bloodstream efficiently in pill form.

One person I know got off of caffeine and other stimulants simply by taking Vitamin B12. He told me that he felt more stable, consistent energy, and even had a better mood and outlook when his B12 level was high. That aligns with the research I’ve read on depression.

Vitamins B9 and B12 are important in the treatment and prevention of dementia and depression, so make sure you’re getting them in your multivitamin.

Form New Holiday Traditions

I recently talked with a friend who was dreading the holidays. Four years ago, his brother’s family moved out of state and hasn’t been back for Christmas. Last year, his father died unexpectedly. My heart hurt for him because I know how strong his family’s traditions are, especially around Christmas. When family traditions are deeply seated in the emotions, it is all the more painful when they come to an end.

The danger of deep annual traditions is that it is tempting to relive them every year. That can lead to two bad outcomes:

  • When a loved one is no longer in the picture (through death or separation), it may be impossible to recreate the experience.
  • Even if everyone is still present, since people change over time, trying to recreate the experience of a happy memory can lead to disappointment and disillusionment. It’s like trying to put on a favorite outfit from your childhood that you’ve outgrown.

When The Good Old Days Don’t Cut It

Clinging to happy memories of simpler times as a way to cope with the uncertainty and fear of life can set you up for disappointment. Your mind reaches back to a happy time to generate the dopamine you enjoyed back then, but it never satisfies you.

It’s like taking cocaine (I’m told): the first hit is always the strongest and you have to increase the dosage to get the same fix.

Grieving the death of a tradition is every bit as real as grieving the death of a person. Take it seriously. Consider having a brief “memorial service” to say goodbye to your tradition as a way of bringing closure to that part of your life.

Create a new tradition with the loved ones currently around you. And reminiscing about old traditions doesn’t count. I want you to begin to associate Christmas with new memories.

Journaling Is The Key

But here’s the key: I want you to journal your experience:

  • What new things did you do this year?
  • What was your favorite part?
  • Who were you with?
  • How did you feel about it?
  • What parts of it would you want to do again? Why?

Journaling is a powerful memory-strengthening strategy. Recalling the activities and emotions is part of it, but the hand-eye-memory coordination that goes on when you write things down is one of the best ways to build and reinforce your memory systems. When I attend a seminar, I handwrite my notes with pen and paper and it galvanizes my recall of the things I learned. I see people use their laptops to take notes (and it may be faster) but it’s not the same, at least on a synaptic level.

If you want to improve your storage and recall functions, write things down by hand. You especially want to capture the thoughts and feelings around the things you experience.

Seek Joy

The most stable, permanent memories are the ones that have emotional anchors baked into them. Intense anger, fear, sadness, joy, and passion turn memories into strongholds. Think about exciting and frightening times in your life. I bet those memories are stronger and more vivid than the memories of everyday activities.

This holiday, find the good in your new circumstances. I can’t count how many Christmas movies there are where that’s the whole plot.

But rather than hunting around for people and activities to bring you joy, choose to find the joy where you are. Joy is a choice, just like all your other emotions. If you choose to stay sad because this Christmas isn’t measuring up, that will be the emotional anchor in your permanent memory of this holiday. Choose joy and you will always remember this as a great holiday season because your mind will associate these memories with positive emotions.

I know that what I’m suggesting is easier said than done, but it can be done. You get to choose your emotions. Choose wisely.

In The End

In the end, I like to remember the fact that Christmas isn’t about me. It’s not my birthday. I wasn’t born to take on the full weight of responsibility for the sins of the entire human race. Nor did I come to bring peace, hope, and joy to the world. You and I get to enjoy the benefits of the Greatest Gift The World Has Ever Known, and all we have to do is receive it. I don’t have to be afraid of the future, humiliated about my past, or confused about my life. I have been given 24/7 access to the Throne of The Most High God, where all the wisdom, mercy, peace, comfort, and joy are always available to me. Jesus paid my admission to the Throne Room, and so I celebrate the great gift He gave me on His birthday.

If you have never accepted that gift for yourself, I assure you that He has been waiting patiently for you to ask. He wants you to have it, but He won’t force it on you. You have to ask. He is listening, so you don’t have to go to some super-special place or talk to some super-special person. You can just talk and know that He hears you. He’s a real person.

If You Don’t Know What To Say

Say, “Lord Jesus, thank you for loving me so much that you gave up your place in Heaven and came to Earth to reconcile me to God. I got away from you, but you went out of your way to bring me home. Happy birthday. Come into my life and do something with it.”

If you have never talked to God like that before, welcome to the family. Your life will never be the same. I urge you to join a local church. If you live in the Naples area, I can recommend a couple of good ones that will encourage you in your new life. Merry Christmas.

My prayer is that this Christmas is peaceful, joyful, and healthful for you. I’ll see you next Wednesday.


“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas

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