A few of my students recently have been discussing memory and focus, causes of poor recall/focus and their relationship to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. They’ve been asking great questions, such as: “Does your current memory recall play a role in future memory recall? If you have a family member with Alzheimer’s are you at increased risk? Does head trauma inhibit your focus and thus ability to recall? Is stress related to this? If so, are there things you should be doing on the front end?”
The unfortunate thing is that we do not currently have a lot of definitive answers to many of these questions. However, the last question, rephrased to ask: “Are there things we should be doing now to improve focus/memory and possible prevent future problems such as Alzheimer’s?” we DO have some answers for!
The easiest answer is YES! There are things we can be doing to enhance our focus, improve memory and prevent cognitive conditions that we may be at risk for. Let’s first consider reasons why memory/focus could be altered in the first place.
Are your hormones out of whack?
Imbalance of hormones, both sex hormones (ex: estrogen, progesterone, testosterone) and other body hormones such as the thyroid hormones, insulin, and adrenal hormones all have the ability to affect cognition. Imbalances of these hormones are common with stress, toxicities, and sometimes aging. In addition to that, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that affect the nervous system) can also get out of balance for many of the same reasons. I commonly see neurotransmitter imbalances in anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD, ADD/ADHD and addictions.
Is the brain inflamed?
Current research is contributing poor memory/focus to chronic neuroinflammation (brain inflammation). We are starting to hear about this both with war veterans and some of the professional athletes (namely American football) who have survived some type of trauma, either physical or emotional. Both types of trauma: physical (ex: concussions) and emotional (PTSD) can cause brain inflammation along with several other factors: toxins (ex: alcohol, drugs, pesticides, solvents…), deficient vitamin status, deficient adrenal glands, or poor glucose (sugar) regulation disorders such as diabetes.*
Research is suggesting that the brain actually tries to compensate for the inflammation by regulation of glutamate, an excitatory substance for the brain/nerves. (1) To tie this together, an imbalanced glutamate response has been correlated with anxiety, depression, PTSD, drug abuse, dementia, impaired memory, impaired sleep, pain and many other disorders. (2),(3), (4)
Is it Alzheimer’s?
As defined by the NIH, “Alzheimer’s disease [AD] is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.” Though the cause of AD isn’t known, it is suspected to be a mix of genetics, environmental factors and/or lifestyle choices. (5) My personal opinion is that if we can control the latter two suspected reasons, we should be able to decrease the likelihood of getting AD even if someone does carry the genetics.
Treatments/Preventive measure ideas:
1. Avoidance – as much as possible avoid chemicals in your home/work environment.**
2. Eat healthy – increasing produce items such as dark berries and colorful veggies gives the body the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it needs to fight off aging and neurological decline.
3. Rebalance what is out of balance – consider testing hormones, neurotransmitter levels and working with a Naturopathic Doctor to get them into optimal ranges.
4. Consider neurological support:
- Essential Fatty Acids – natural anti-inflammatory. They also make the lining of our nerve cells (called the myelin sheet) and make nerve processing more efficient.
- Phosphatidyl Serine – calms an over-stimulated nervous system and has promising research in memory improvement. Also great for insomnia and anxiety.
- Turmeric – natural anti-inflammatory with special affinity for the brain. It also has promising studies as anti-cancer, anti-Alzheimer’s agent.
- Other herbs: centella (Gotu Kola) is one of my personal favorite memory herbs, also bacopa, gingko, ginseng and many other adaptogen based herbs can help with memory and cognition.
To put it simply: clean up your environment, make good lifestyle choices and take extra measures to decrease inflammation in the brain (and body). Without having all of the answers, I questioned my students, “knowing what we do know about our overall wellbeing, along with the current state of our environment, and the association of these items with brain inflammation and cognitive/memory decline, why wouldn’t you want to take preventive measures?!”
*this is NOT an all inclusive list
** watch for Healthy Homes blog coming soon!
1. Time-Dependent Compensatory Response to Chronic Neuroinflammation in Hippocampus and Brainstem: The Potential Role of Glutamate Neurotransmission. Alzheimers Dis Parkinsonism. 2013 Mar 28;3:110.
2. Seroprevalence of N-methyl-D-aspartate glutamate receptor (NMDA-R) autoantibodies in aging subjects without neuropsychiatric disorders and in dementia patients. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2014 Mar 7.
3. Astrocytic activation in the anterior cingulate cortex is critical for sleep disorder under neuropathic pain. Synapse. 2014 Feb 1. doi: 10.1002/syn.21733.
4. Blocking Metabotropic Glutamate Receptor Subtype 7 (mGlu7) via the Venus Flytrap Domain (VFTD) inhibits Amygdala Plasticity, Stress and Anxiety-related Behavior. J Biol Chem. 2014 Mar 4.
5. Alzheimers Disease Fact Sheet http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet
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