Did you know that stress affects memory? You may have thought that recent forgetfulness was just nothing – or worse, started to fear the worse case scenario. But if you’ve been more stressed than usual, memory loss may be a direct result. Everything from forgetting the name of your friend mid-introduction to where you just put down your sunglasses, or more serious situations of memory loss can occur. Let’s first examine why this happens:
Psychology Today attributes the release of adrenaline driving a “fight or flight” response as a potential contributor to a temporary memory loss. That sudden distribution of adrenaline will raise your heart rate and blood pressure, which the brain may interpret as anxiety or fear. For just a moment this excitement could have a fleeting effect beneficial to memory, then a distress reaction may impair memory.
To get technical for a moment, when you get excited, the anterior pituitary gland releases a chemical known as ACTH. ACTH – adrenocorticotropic hormone – is released by the pituitary gland in response to the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), by the hypothalamus. In turn, the adrenal glands will produce cortisol, the body’s hormone intended to combat stress.
Your body works to balance the release of hormones so when cortisol levels rise, ACTH levels fall. The reverse is also true – when ACTH levels rise, cortisol levels will fall. A number of studies have been published in the Journal of Neuroscience attributing to the possible link between short-term memory loss in adults and stress.
One study, submitted by the University of Iowa, examined the effect of higher levels of cortisol on memory loss. The study drew a correlation between higher levels of cortisol and a gradual loss of synapses in the prefrontal cortex. As the prefrontal cortex is responsible for many key activities from planning to general judgment and moderating social behavior, it is also related to short-term memory storage. The brain is a most complex organ with three major components: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. The cerebral cortex, a thin layer of neural tissue covering the cerebrum, holds the majority of the brain’s neurons. One of the functions here is for short-term memory storage and long-term memory retention.
In a study at the University of California Berkeley, it was found that there is a correlation between long-term stress and activity in the brain. The research showed that stress increases the development of white matter, which helps send messages across the brain, but this served to also decrease the number of neurons that assist with information processing. Basically, the white matter may impede the brain’s ability to communicate with itself. So short-term bursts of stress and anxiety can impact short-term memory loss. Longer, sustained traumas may lead to more serious results.
Focusing again on the short-term, that means that if a short-term burst of stress or anxiety is potentially causing memoryless, than there are options to protect yourself and reverse these effects.
First, a healthy diet may help to protect you from memory loss. Spinach is full of magnesium, which is known to help regulate cortisol levels. Again, a raised level of cortisol can be part of that “fight or flight” response. Vitamin-C rich foods and fruits like oranges have been found to lower cortisol levels. You’ve probably heard a lot about Omega-3 fatty acids and their benefit in combating inflammation, but the same can be said about their ability to reduce cortisol levels and perceived stress. Less perceived stress could equate to fewer triggers of memory loss.
Additional foods lending to similar results includes beans, barley and micro-greens, plus basil, zinc, and finally, dark chocolate. Load up on that micro-green salad with a sprinkle of flax seeds, a grilled fish, and olive oil-citrus-basil dressing and treat yourself to a sweet chocolate treat afterward and you’ll have more of the tools to combat stress and prevent memory loss.
After augmenting your diet to protect yourself from memory loss comes of course, exercise. For many reasons exercise can be beneficial, but specifically, a 20-minute daily cardiovascular routine is one way to induce deeper sleep, lower stress, reduce insulin levels, and generate new blood vessel growth in the brain. Together these results of exercise may prevent or reverse short-term memory loss.
While deep breathing, yoga, and other forms of meditation can also reduce stress and offer other positive effects, tests have shown the more moderate, sustained activity such as brisk walking, running, aerobics, swimming, tennis, or other active sports, will promote oxygen to the brain, reduce cortisol, and yes, lower stress, further preventing memory loss.
Lastly, a healthy diet and exercise regimen may also help maintain a healthy sleep cycle. Healthy sleep has been found to minimize changes in the brain that again could raise cortisol and trigger memory loss. Sleep deprivation can affect the hippocampus and the connectivity between the brain suggested earlier. And frankly, one does not need to read a formal academic review to say that lack of sleep can cause crankiness, stress, and related forgetfulness. However, in tests with mice conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, only a few hours of sleep has shown significant improvement in memory recall. So imagine regular, healthy sleep, a vitamin-rich diet, and moderate exercise, to prevent memory loss.
One last method to combat stress-induced memory loss is a practice called forced retrieval. This can be described as the doing instead of the studying – do you learn better by reading something over and over, or by doing something again and again. Forced retrieval suggests that the brain will retain the information better when it’s actively participating in the task. So instead of stressing that you’re reading about something and not recalling the information when time to take the test, try flash cards or recitation to ease the potential for stress and combat the potential of short-term memory loss.
So next time you or someone close to you is having a bout with short-term memory loss, first, assess the situation. Are they under undue stress? Are they getting a good night’s sleep, steady exercise, and maintaining a healthy diet? If not, their cortisol levels may be raised resulting in memory loss. Rest up, eat well, breathe in and hold onto your thoughts.
However, if memory problems continue to occur or manifest to a more serious degree, than it may be time to visit with a physician at a specialty clinical like Memory Health Center. While the research does suggest that stress does contribute to memory problems, it’s best to evaluate the systems in a professional setting if your concerns persist.