Your brain is a dynamic organ, constantly adapting and changing, for better or for worse, even on a day-to-day basis
Thyroid problems, depression, anxiety, menopause, lack of sleep, smoking, stress, and certain medications can take a toll on your memory function
Examples of factors that play a positive role in memory function include green tea, vitamin B12, and exercise
Your diet, gut health, and vitamin D levels also influence your memory significantly
Fear of losing your mind is a pervasive, fear. Among Americans, the notion of losing mental capacity evokes twice as much fear as losing physical ability, and 60 percent of US adults say they are very or somewhat worried about memory loss.1
The good news is that your brain is a dynamic organ, constantly adapting and changing, for better or for worse. Many daily activities such as, lack of sleep can seriously interfere with your memory the next day.
On the other hand, a healthy lifestyle will support your brain health and even encourage your brain to grow new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity.
Your brain’s hippocampus, i.e. the memory center, is especially able to grow new cells and it’s now known that your hippocampus regenerates throughout your entire lifetime (even into your 90s), provided you give it the tools to do so.
Many of the most powerful interventions for memory are also the simplest. So if you’d like to boost your memory, and protect it against negative changes, keep reading. The 11 factors that follow, as reported by TIME,2 all have the potential to mess with your memory (some in a good way and others a bad way).
11 Surprising Factors That Affect Your Memory
1. Thyroid Problems
Although your thyroid doesn’t have a specific role in your brain, memory problems are a hallmark characteristic of thyroid disease. High or low thyroid levels (hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism) may lead to difficulty with memory and concentration. If you suspect you have thyroid trouble, please read these natural protocols for addressing thyroid dysfunction.
Hot flashes and insomnia are common during menopause, and both can impair your sleep and contribute to memory loss. This is temporary and should improve when your menopause symptoms subside (try these simple solutions for stopping hot flashes).
3. Lack of Sleep
The process of brain growth, or neuroplasticity, is believed to underlie your brain’s capacity to control behavior, including learning and memory. However, sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be important for synaptic plasticity.
Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiation, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory, can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber.
Among adults, a mid-day nap has even been found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.3 Most adults need about eight hours of sleep a night; if you wake up feeling fatigued or fall asleep easily during the day, you probably need more sleep. You can find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.
4. Anxiety and Depression
Increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol brought on by anxiety and depression causes your brain cells to lose synapses (which connect brain cells). This, in turn, makes it more difficult to form and retrieve memories. Allen Towfigh, MD, medical director of New York Neurology & Sleep Medicine, told TIME:4
“We don’t understand the exact link, but strong evidence indicates depression, anxiety, and bipolar disease disrupts the neural circuitry involved in developing and retrieving memories…
The severity of the memory loss often mirrors the severity of the mood disorder—severe depression brings about equally severe memory loss.”
5. Certain Medications
Many prescription drugs interfere with your memory function. This includes anxiety medications (Xanax, Valium, and Ativan), which hinder your brain’s ability to transfer short-term memories to long-term “storage.”
Others include tricyclic antidepressants, statin drugs, beta-blockers, narcotic painkillers, incontinence drugs, sleep aids, and antihistamines (such as Benadryl).
Smoking impairs the blood supply to your brain, leading to memory lapses. Studies also show that smokers have a more rapid decline in brain function, including memory, than non-smokers, while smoking leads to the accumulation of abnormal proteins in your brain that interfere with processing and relaying information.5
An animal study revealed that higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.6 The findings indicate that how your body responds to stress may be a factor that influences how your brain ages over time. Previous research has also linked chronic stress with working memory impairment.7
My favorite tool for stress management is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects.
8. A Higher “Infectious Burden”
People exposed to more germs, such as the cold sore virus (herpes simplex type 1), scored 25 percent lower on cognitive tests than those with a lower “infectious burden.”8 Researchers concluded that past infections may contribute to cognitive impairment, perhaps due to damage to your blood vessels.
9. Green Tea
If you want to boost your memory, drink more high-quality green tea. In a study of 12 healthy volunteers, those who received a beverage containing 27.5 grams of green tea extract showed increased connectivity between the parietal and frontal cortex of the brain compared to those who drank a non-green tea beverage.9
The increased activity was correlated with improved performance on working memory tasks, and the researchers believe the results suggest green tea may be useful for treating cognitive impairments, including dementia.
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by stimulating nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections, and protecting them from damage. During exercise nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and directly benefits cognitive functions, including learning.
A 2010 study on primates published in Neuroscience also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys. This is a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well.10
In a separate one year-long study, individuals who engaged in exercise were actually growing and expanding the brain’s memory center 1 percent to 2 percent per year, where typically that center would have continued to decline in size. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes high-intensity interval exercise, strength training, stretching, and core work, along with regular intermittent movement.
11. Vitamin B12
B vitamins including vitamin B12 may slow brain shrinkage by as much as seven-fold in brain regions specifically known to be most impacted by Alzheimer’s disease. In one study, participants taking high doses of folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 had blood levels of homocysteine that were lowered as was the associated brain shrinkage – by up to 90 percent. The researchers noted:11
“…B vitamins lower homocysteine, which directly leads to a decrease in GM [gray matter] atrophy, thereby slowing cognitive decline. Our results show that B-vitamin supplementation can slow the atrophy of specific brain regions that are a key component of the AD [Alzheimer’s disease] process and that are associated with cognitive decline.”
This makes a strong case for ensuring your diet includes plenty of healthful B-vitamin sources, such as meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and wild-caught fish. Leafy green vegetables, beans, and peas also provide some B vitamins, but if you eat an all vegetarian or vegan diet, vitamin B12 is one of the nutrients your body is most likely deficient in. Also, when you get older, the lining of your stomach gradually loses its ability to produce hydrochloric acid, which releases vitamin B12 from your food. If you’re over 50, it’s safe to assume you are not absorbing vitamin B12 at an optimal level and may be at risk of deficiency.
Because vitamin B12 is the largest vitamin molecule known, it is not easily absorbed from most oral supplements. Injections or a sublingual (under your tongue) spray work far better, as they allow the large B12 molecule to be absorbed directly into your bloodstream.
Three More Little-Known Tips to Supercharge Your Memory
If you’re serious about improving your memory and your cognitive function, you’ll also want to know about these three important variables for brain health.
Activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain, and researchers have also located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories. In older adults, research has shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with poorer brain function, and increasing levels may help keep older adults mentally fit. Appropriate sun exposure is all it takes to keep your levels where they need to be for healthy brain function. If this is not an option, a safe tanning bed is the next best alternative, followed by a vitamin D3 supplement.
Your ancient ancestors never had access to food 24/7 so your genes are optimized for periods of feast and fasting. Problem is most of us are in 24 hour feast mode. Intermittent fasting can help your body to “reset” itself and start to burn fat instead of sugar. Further, it will help you to reduce your overall calorie consumption, which promotes brain cell growth and connectivity.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, however, I prefer an intermittent fasting schedule that simply calls for limiting your eating to a narrower window of time each day. By restricting your eating to a 6-8 hour window, you effectively fast 16-18 hours each day. To learn more, please see this previous intermittent fasting article.
Your gut is your “second brain,” and your gut bacteria transmits information to your brain via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem into your enteric nervous system (the nervous system of your gastrointestinal tract). There is a close connection between abnormal gut flora and abnormal brain development, and just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut — including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain and is linked to mood.
Quite simply, your gut health can impact your brain function, psyche, and behavior, as they are interconnected and interdependent in a number of different ways. In addition to avoiding sugar, one of the best ways to support gut health is to consume beneficial bacteria. You can use a probiotic supplement for this, but I’m particularly fond of using fermented vegetables, because they can deliver extraordinarily high levels of beneficial bacteria. Most people aren’t aware that in a healthy serving of sauerkraut – two to three ounces or so – you’re getting the equivalent of nearly 100 capsules of the highest-potency probiotic you can buy. It’s clearly one of the most cost-effective alternatives.
And Remember the Most Important Factor of All… Your Diet
The foods you eat – and don’t eat – play a crucial role in your memory. Fresh vegetables are essential, as are healthy fats and avoiding sugar and grain carbohydrates. You can find detailed information about nine foods for brainpower here. For instance, curry, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and walnuts contain antioxidants and other compounds that protect your brain health and may even stimulate the production of new brain cells. Increasing your animal-based omega-3 fat intake and reducing consumption of damaged omega-6 fats (think processed vegetable oils) in order to balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is also important.
I prefer krill oil to fish oil, as krill oil also contains astaxanthin, which not only protects the omega-3 fats from oxidation but also is particularly to support brain health. Coconut oil is another healthful fat for brain function. According to research by Dr. Mary Newport, just over two tablespoons of coconut oil (about 35 ml or 7 level teaspoons) would supply you with the equivalent of 20 grams of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which is indicated as either a preventative measure against degenerative neurological diseases or as a treatment for an already established case.
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