Most people think that mild memory loss is a normal part of ageing. Scientists used to believe that we’re born with a certain number of neurons or brain cells that decline slowly over time and that there was no way to stop the inevitable decline in memory and learning that comes with age.
Improved brain knowledge and some good quality studies in rodents have in fact revealed that the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are stored, has the ability to regenerate throughout someone’s life and that these new cells are ready to ‘learn’ and ‘store’ with the same plasticity that a baby’s brain would .
So this begs the questions, why do we then lose our memory as early as our thirties? And how can we improve memory naturally?
Most people I know, shrug off these ‘senior moments’ as down to fatigue, stress or purely ‘ageing’. But by ignoring these early signs are we setting ourselves up for bad news later on, when memory loss is no longer something to laugh at but instead may carry the frightening diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s?
In this three-part series, I will be looking at the various causes of cognitive decline and how you can easily improve your memory naturally with simple lifestyle, dietary and exercise changes.
Sleep to remember
We know that good, restorative sleep is essential to improve memory. Why? Because during deep sleep, which scientists call slow-wave sleep (SWS) memories that were created during waking times are consolidated 2. Lack of quality deep sleep has also been associated with decreased vigilance the following day 3.
You can think of deep sleep as your brain’s filing time, where all the messy paperwork that was created during the day gets tidied up into the correct drawers for future retrieval.
We experience the most deep sleep in the first third of the night. This is the time when we enter deep sleep more quickly and stay within this cycle the longest compared to the rest of the night. Clearly, it is important to foster as much deep sleep as we can.
Factors that reduce deep sleep:
- Pre-sleep stress: catching up on work emails, having an argument with your partner, watching a violent or scary movie will increase the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol should be at its lowest in the evening and first part of the night to allow for melatonin, your sleep hormone to rise.
- Being exposed to light at night: Exposure to any artificial light and in particular blue light emitted by computer devices and energy-efficient light bulbs after sunset has been shown to decrease levels of melatonin significantly.
- Exercising within 2 hours of going to bed: this will increase your cortisol levels, decreasing the amount of deep sleep you’ll experience.
- Awake time prior to sleep: having a lengthy late afternoon nap reduces the amount of deep sleep we experience that night.
- Chronic stress or depression
- Thyroid problems
“Staring at a computer screen at night decreases levels of deep sleep.”
How to improve your memory by improving deep sleep
- Do not work after 8pm
- Avoid using your computer after 8pm or at very least, download the free f.lux application to change the light colour from blue to red
- Swap your bedside table lamp for a salt lamp as they produce red light
- Swap your exercise time to early morning rather than late at night. This will improve both your sleep and your adrenal function
- Make love not war with your partner – sexual activity, and particularly orgasms decrease cortisol levels and promote oxytocin, a relaxing hormone
- Eat a handful of cherries, or even better, drink a small glass of cherry juice concentrate as this has been shown to increase melatonin significantly 4
- Address your chronic stress, depression, thyroid and exhaustion through the help of a qualified naturopath. Until you address the underlying causes, your sleep quality will not improve.