Everyone wants the mental edge. People of all ages want to avoid dementia, improve their memory, and maintain a sharp mind for life. And while researchers are asking more questions about how to deal with diseases of the brain, consumers are looking for a solution themselves.
Since 2000, search results for Alzheimer’s disease in the scientific database PubMed have climbed from 3,200 papers to more than 8,000. Meanwhile, the memory supplement and nutraceutical market has grown 100% for the past several years.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about brain health. The biggest misconception is that there is a magic bullet drug or supplement like the drug NZT that Bradley Cooper took in the movie Limitless.
Your brain is a complex organ and thus requires a more all-encompassing approach. This is why I have put together for you the ultimate lifestyle approach to improving your memory. This guide outlines 5 specific areas – exercise, sleep, stress management, nutrition, and supplementation. We’ll look at the importance of each area and how you can optimize it with your brain and memory in mind.
The Ultimate Lifestyle Approach to Improving Your Memory
There is no magic bullet to improve your memory and cognitive health. Brain research suggests that the most effective approach is a lifestyle approach that encompasses exercise, sleep, stress management, nutrition, and supplementation.
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: How to Use Exercise to Sprinkle ‘Miracle-Gro’ on Your Brain Cells for Better Memory
- Chapter 2: Prune Your Memory While You Sleep to Remember Important Items While Discarding Useless Information
- Chapter 3: 6 Ways to Zap Stress in Order to Take the Chains Off Your Memory and Information Recall
- Chapter 4: How to Use Nutrition to Clear the Metabolic Smoke That’s Impeding Your Memory
- Chapter 5: Effectively Using Natural Supplements to Fight Excessive Oxidation and Enhance Brain Function
- Chapter 6: Why Brain Games Won’t Keep Your Mind Sharp and What to Do Instead
Chapter 1: How to Use Exercise to Sprinkle ‘Miracle-Gro’ on Your Brain Cells for Better Memory
Here’s the good news about exercise and your memory: You can use it cafeteria-style. What I mean is that you can take and use what you want. Different kinds of exercise will have different effects on your brain and memory. You can exercise once in a particular fashion to get a specific immediate effect on your memory, or you can use a longer-term strategy that includes aerobic exercise to reduce your risk of dementia and age-related memory loss.
One thing to note is that while we are focusing on exercise’s ability to improve memory, exercise has a variety of beneficial effects on the brain, including increasing BDNF (aka ‘Miracle-Gro’ for your brain cells) and boosting endorphins, the feel-good compounds that are released by your body when you exercise.
When it comes to your memory, metal health, and brain function, the answer with exercise is clear – do different kinds of exercise as often as you can.
Resources, Links, and Research
- Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills [Harvard Health]
- To Boost Memory: Study, Wait, Then Exercise [NYT] / Accompanying Research Study [Current Biology]
- How Physical Exercise Makes Your Brain Work Better [Guardian]
- Exercise Doesn’t Just Prevent Memory Loss – It Improves It! [NYT]
- The Exercise Effect [American Psychological Association]
- Physical Activity, Fitness, and Physical Education: Effect on Academic Performance [Institute of Medicine]
Chapter 2: Prune Your Memory While You Sleep to Remember Important Items While Discarding Useless Information
When you think about improving your memory, sleep probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night is essential for a properly functioning memory and brain.
Inadequate sleep (<7 hours a night) is a massive problem for Americans. It is estimated that up to 80% of people suffer from transient insomnia while 15% are plagued by chronic insomnia. This lack of sleep can direct impact your ability to remember people’s names, hold and use multiple ideas in your mind at once, and remember basic facts.
Getting sufficient sleep is important for memory and information retention, especially as we get older. According to Dr. Matthew Walker from UC Berkeley, “When we are young, we have deep sleep that helps the brain store and retain new facts and information. But as we get older, the quality of our sleep deteriorates and prevents those memories from being saved by the brain at night.”
As we age, our bodies naturally get less REM/deep sleep on a percentage-basis of our total sleep. This makes it more and more important that you get sufficient (or even more) sleep as you get older. By increasing the total amount of sleep we get, we will be able to increase the total amount of REM/deep sleep we also get.
Another reason why sleep is so important for your memory is that it allows your brain to get rid of all the extraneous information it picked up during the day that is of no consequence to you. One study found that animals’ brains were 18% smaller upon waking compared to when they went to sleep due to this memory pruning and optimizing. This strategic forgetting may be an important step for optimizing overall brain health and function.
How can you get started with quality sleep? For many people, getting to bed earlier is the best first step. If you want to get 8 hours of sleep and need to be up by 7am, the only way this can happen is if you are in bed and asleep by 11pm
But as the insomnia statistics show, getting to bed might not be enough. Many people have trouble falling asleep once they are in bed. It is important to remember that falling asleep is a passive process and isn’t something that you can make yourself do. We’ve all had those situations when we are tossing and turning in bed, unable to fall sleep, and trying harder to sleep just makes it worse.
To leverage the passive nature of sleep, it’s beneficial to have a sleep ritual and optimized sleep environment that includes avoiding alcohol before bed, ensuring your room is dark, using magnesium to relax, maintaining a cool bedroom temperature, and stretching before bed.
Resources, Links, and Research
- Sleep to Perform Series (9 Videos on Mastering Sleep) [Dr. Mike]
- Sleep, Learning, and Memory [Harvard Med]
- About Sleep’s Role in Memory [Physiological Reviews]
- How Sleep Helps Memory [Psychology Today]
- 5 FDA Approved Sleep Drugs That Inhibit Deep/REM Sleep [Medscape]
- Improve Your Memory With a Good Night’s Sleep [National Sleep Foundation]
- Rapid Eye Movement Sleep: Keystone for Memory Formation [Science Daily]
- REM Sleep Targets New Synapses [Nature Reviews NeuroScience]
Chapter 3: 6 Ways to Zap Stress in Order to Take the Chains Off Your Memory and Information Recall
Memory, your mind, and stress have a funny relationship. Short-term (or acute) stress can lead to an increase in focus and attention, but long-term stress eats away at your memory. Here’s an example to illustration this dichotomy.
If you were getting chased by a bear, your flight or flight response would kick into overdrive. The immediate dump of stress hormones and adrenaline into your bloodstream that results from your fight or flight response would cause you to have laser focus (to aid in survival). This is a situation where stress leads to improvements in mental function.
Traumatic (uber high stress) experiences also have significant impact on your memory. In the case of the bear, that memory would deeply implant in your mind. And when traumatic experiences go too far, they can cause temporary memory loss. This memory loss could be in part due to the stress hormone cortisol, which inhibits memory recall.
Outside of these extreme and short-term stressful situations, stress is very bad for your memory. Most of the stress that you experience in your life is chronic stress. Chronic stress is lower-level stress that is sustained for long periods of time. This kind of stress can actually damage the structure of your brain and how the neurons in your brain connect.
This can result in decreased ability to remember things because stress reduces the number of neurons in your brain that are used to transmit information from one part of it to the next. Some research has also found a link between mental illness and chronic stress, as well as between stress as we age and memory impairment.
Lastly, when it comes to learning and retaining information that we are trying to learn, controlling stress so that we are not learning and studying in a stressful environment is also key.
I’m sorry if these first paragraphs stressed you out! That was not the goal.
I simply want to emphasize the profound impact that ongoing stress has on our brain and memory. If you want to improve your memory and brain function, then a major step in the right direction is taking stress management seriously.
The good news is that controlling memory-blunting stress in your life is much easier than you might think. Below I’ve outlined for you what I think are the 6 best ways to help control stress both immediately and over the long term so that you can take the stress brakes off your memory and allow your brain to function at its full potential.
Links and Resources: How to Improve Wellbeing and Squash Stress
- Get Outside:
- Use Military Style Breath Control:
- Practice Yoga:
- Makes Lists:
- Low Intensity Exercise:
Chapter 4: How to Use Nutrition to Clear the Metabolic Smoke That’s Impeding Your Memory
When it comes to improving memory and enhancing brain function, it’s hard to say whether nutrition, sleep, deliberate stress reduction, or exercise is the most important. However, nutrition may be the most important.
One of the reasons that nutrition could be considered the most important area of focus with respects to memory and brain health is because when you properly fuel your body, you are giving your brain the ability to function at its best.
Proper nutrition helps counteract the metabolic stresses of daily life that, if left unchecked, can lead to decreased cognitive function. What I’m talking about is oxidative stress. Oxidation at the most basic level is a chemical reaction that combines oxygen with another compound or molecule. This process results in the production of free radicals. If these accumulate unchecked, it leads to increased oxidative stress (i.e. stress put on your biology due to excessive oxidation), which can accelerate brain aging and memory impairment.
But since oxygen is the life blood of the human body — we are constantly using oxygen in chemical reactions and producing free radicals — stopping oxidation isn’t an option. This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are compounds that quench, or neutralize, the free radicals produced by oxidative reactions. And we need to eat foods in our diet that are rich with antioxidants to help support this process in our bodies.
Let me share with your one of my favorite analogies to give you another way of looking at it. Imagine your brain is a room. As we live our lives and get older, the room starts to fill with smoke. The more smoke in the room, the harder it is to do things (i.e. think, remember stuff, etc). In order to improve our brain function and memory, we need to clear the smoke. Antioxidants are the things that allow us to clear the smoke from the room (our brains), allowing us to think more clearly.
So what are these foods that contain the antioxidants that our body needs?
I’m not a big believer in memory-boosting foods, as there are no foods that you can eat that will lead to immediate improvements in brain function. (Harvard Health agrees with me.) There is also no magic bullet food that you can eat.
Instead research shows that there are collections or groups of foods (what nutrition researchers call dietary patterns) that, when eaten consistently, can help reduce your risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s. One group of researchers from Columbia University Medical School found the following foods to be key to reducing risk of Alzheimer’s disease: nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables, fruits, and dark and green leafy vegetables.
Another diet that has gotten a lot of attention for its beneficial effects on your brain is the MIND diet. MIND is an acronym (us scientists LOVE acronyms!) for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet. The MIND diet was developed as a collaborative effort between Rush University, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and the National Institute on Aging. It is a modification of the DASH diet (another acronym-based diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which was developed back in 1993 by scientists at Johns Hopkins University.
Here’s the awesome news about the MIND Diet: In 3 years it reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by 53% in people who vigilantly followed the diet. And people who had moderate adherence to the MIND Diet still experienced a 35% reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s disease!!
The MIND diet contains 10 brain-friendly food groups:
- Green leafy vegetables – 1 salad daily
- Other vegetables – 1 serving daily (e.g. 1 cup raw broccoli)
- Nuts – 1 serving daily (e.g. 49 pistachios)
- Berries – 2 or more (1/2 cup) servings per week (blueberries and strawberries are emphasized)
- Whole grains – 3 servings daily (1 serving = 1 slice of bread or 1/2 cup cooked rice)
- Beans – 3-4 servings per week (1 serving = 1/2 cup canned beans)
- Fish – 1 or more servings per week (e.g. 3 oz salmon)
- Poultry – 2 servings or more per week (1 serving = 3 oz cooked)
- Olive oil – Use as the primary oil in your diet (1 serving = 1 Tbsp)
- Wine – 1 glass (5 ounces) per day (yes, you read that correctly!)
The MIND Diet also promotes the avoidance of the following 5 foods and food groups:
- Red meat – Eat rarely (I disagree with this recommendation and believe data shows that lean red meats can be consumed just as you would consume poultry. However, it is prudent to minimize processed meats.)
- Butter – 1 Tbsp or less per day (always butter, never margarine)
- Cheese – 1 serving per week (1 serving = 1.5 oz)
- Pastries and Sweets – Avoid all (buzzkill! 1 per month is fine, in my opinion)
- Fried or fast food – Less than 1 serving per week
Resources, Links, and Research
- The MIND Diet Research Study Trial Official Website
- The MIND Diet Nutrition Presentation by Susan Buckley RDN [South Denver Cardiology Associates]
- Food Combination and Alzheimer Disease Risk: A Protective Diet.
- Memory Loss Linked to Poor Diet, Study Suggests [Science Daily]
- Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review [Epidemiology]
- Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Factors or Prevention: The Current Evidence [Expert Reviews in Neurotherapy]
- Importance and Management of Micronutrient Deficiencies in Patients With Alzheimer’s Disease. [Clinical Interventional Aging]
Chapter 5: Effectively Using Natural Supplements to Fight Excessive Oxidation and Enhance Brain Function
The area of supplements for brain health used to be the Wild West. Today it is slowly moving away from that due to some serious action by the FTC and the attorney generals of various states. This increased regulatory action could be due to the fact that companies have essentially been lying to consumers about the research behind their products and the product effectiveness. But the worst part, and something that has been noted by the FTC, is that many companies are preying on people who are scared about cognitive diseases and giving them false hope.
However, not all products are like this and some contain ingredients that are backed by human clinical trials to support the claims on the bottles and packaging. Still, there are some eternal truths about supplements that are important to keep in mind. Supplements are valuable to you when they provide you with a nutrient in an amount that you could not otherwise get in your normal daily life and with normal food consumption. Here are some examples of worthwhile supplements for your brain health and memory.
Spearmint contains more than 50 different types of antioxidants and has been shown through a variety of studies to support neuronal growth and maintenance while also aiding in the production of key neurotransmitters. Now, it is impossible to eat 50 pounds of spearmint leaves per day to reap these benefits, so that is why a spearmint extract supplement is valuable for supporting cognitive health. Spearmint extract can help improve attention, concentration, and working memory.
Many people do not eat oily fish on a regular basis due to taste preference, availability, or price. This is why a DHA supplement is a valuable insurance policy for your brain as you get older.
L-theaine is a unique amino acid found in tea leaves that has the ability to enhance mental relaxation without inducing drowsiness. However, 1 cup of black tea only contains 20mg of L-theanine, and a majority of research studies show that you need 200mg to elicit a consistent effect (although 50mg can work in some cases). Most people aren’t willing to drink 10 cups of tea in one sitting, so a supplement is warranted.
Curcumin is an extract from turmeric that has a variety of functions in the body. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound that acts on one of the same enzymes in the body as ibuprofen (the COX-2 enzyme, for those into the biochemistry of life). Research has unearthed derivatives of curcumin that may in the future play a role in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Only through supplementation (and not seasoning meals with turmeric) would we be able to get enough of the specific derivative of curcumin needed to wage a war against Alzheimer’s disease at a cellular level. It is important to note that the Alzheimer’s/curcumin derivative connection is in its infancy and I only mention it here as an example of when supplements vs. eating whole foods is warranted.
Resources, Links, and Research
- Clinical Trial Summaries of Spearmint and Marigold [Cerevan – A memory supplement I formulated]
- Combined Effects of L-theanine and Caffeine on Cognitive Performance and Mood [Nutritional Neuroscience]
- DHA and Your Brain [Scientific American]
- Examining the Potential Clinical Value of Curcumin in the Prevention and Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease [British Journal of Nutrition]
Chapter 6: Why Brain Games Won’t Keep Your Mind Sharp and What to Do Instead
Over the last several years, there has been an explosion of brain games touting the power to help keep your mind sharp while fighting off age-related memory loss with daily practice and use. Unfortunately the science (or lack thereof) did not match these claims, causing the FTC fine and reprimand several of the big players in this industry for false advertising. Seventy psychologists and neuroscientists have also taken a stand against the claims of brain games to improve long-term cognitive health and memory stating:
We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.
The good news is that these leading scientists agree with the premise of this Ultimate Lifestyle Guide for Improving Your Memory and Cognitive Health in that optimizing your brain function and memory cannot be achieved through a magic bullet but instead through a long-term engagement in a healthy life. As the researchers point out in their letter:
Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it. But if it replaces time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television, the choice may make more sense for you.
Links and Resources: Reading, Socializing, and Other Strategies to Improve Brain Function
- Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive Functioning
- Short and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain
- Stanford Researches Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature
- Late-Life Volunteering Helps Maintain Cognitive Function
Post a Comment, Ask a Question, and Get Started Toward a Better Memory
I hope you enjoyed my Ultimate Lifestyle Guide to Improving Your Memory and Boosting Brain Function.
I’d love to know: What did you think of the guide?
Or maybe you have a question.
Either way, let me know by leaving a quick comment below.