By Dr. Scott Olson
Has this ever happened to you? Minutes ago, you were introduced to a few new
people. You shook their hands and started a conversation. Now you are standing
there, half paying attention to the conversation, trying to remember their
names. Or maybe you've lost your keys for the fifth time this week. Or you maybe
you struggle to say focused in meetings or have a hard time understanding
These situations can happen to anyone at any age. If these lapses in memory and concentration seem to be happening to you more often lately, then you need some help.
While many people think you are just stuck with the brain you have, there is actually a lot that you can do to improve your memory and concentration. A combination of memory strategies, exercise, and proper nutrition can go a long way to removing that fuzzy-brain feeling.
Does stress play a role in memory and concentration? The answer to that question
is yes. Stress actually improves memory at first, but
chronic, long-term stress makes memory and concentration worse.
When you are under stress for a short period of time, your memory and concentration actually increases. Think about a zebra eating grass in a field. When a lion comes running through the grass, the zebra's body releases all sort of chemicals that helps it get away. Some of these chemicals go to the brain and increase the zebra's ability to concentrate and escape the lion.
The problem that human's have that zebra's don't is that we are under constant stress. Our days are full of lions running at us through the grass, only the lions come in the form of money worries, work or family problems, or just piloting a car through morning traffic. This constant stress we are under actually damages the part of the brain, called the hippocampus that is responsible for short-term memory. Recent studies have shown that stress impacts other parts of the brain also having to do with memory and concentration.
Other Memory Zappers
The modern world places such demands on our memory and concentration abilities, while at the same time robbing us of what our brains need to function well.
- Poor nutrition: Poor nutrition means poor brains. Our brains need the proper nutrition in order to work well. Sugar, alcohol, and missing nutrients all lead to a sluggish brain.
- Sleep: Lack of sleep also sends your brain into outer space. Memory, concentration, and reaction time all decrease when people don't get enough sleep. This can happen even with a small amount of sleep loss.
- Medications: Certain medications also reduce memory and concentration abilities. This can occur with over-the-counter medications as well as prescription medications. If you think that your memory problems may be caused by something you are taking, ask your doctor or a pharmacist.
How to Regain Your Brain
Your brain responds to changes in the environment. The best way to improve your memory and concentration is to try many different angles.
- Challenge Your Self: Puzzles, games, chess, playing an instrument, and reading all help to improve your memory and thinking abilities. The old saying, use it or lose it applies to the brain.
- Play to Your Strengths: Use memory tools that make sense to you to help you remember. Some people are good at remembering names, others remember numbers. You can't remember everything. Sticky notes, lists, and always putting your keys in the same place help take the burden off your memory systems so that you can focus on what is important.
- Practice Relaxation: Remember that stress plays a large role in memory. Relax using yoga, meditation, exercise and other techniques.
- Exercise: As if there weren't enough good reasons to get out and get your blood moving, exercise greatly improves mental performance by bringing oxygen and nutrients to your brain. Even a daily walk of 20 minutes or more can greatly improve mental function.
- Eat Right: Make sure you get a good amount of live nutrition, lots of fruits and vegetables in your diet. Sugar gives you that false increase in brain function as it will cause you to crash later on. Keeping your blood sugar normal also improves mental performance.
- Treat Chronic Conditions: Many chronic conditions can affect brain function. It's important to be aware of any conditions you may have, and to be actively pursuing a treatment plan.
Get the Right Nutrition
The best way to approach memory and concentration problems is to give the brain what it needs to function at it's best. Many of these nutrients can be found in a good diet, but it is also necessary to supplement in order to get the best out of your brain.
- EFA: Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) are, well essential. Nerves, which make up most of the brain, are made of fats. If you put bad fats into your body, you have bad nerves and poor brain functioning. The best EFAs to take are in fish oil.
- B-Vitamins: B vitamins are essential for so many functions in the body, and especially brain functioning. Choose well-made vitamins that are activated (use the active forms of the Bs) to better work in your body.
- Ginkgo: Ginkgo is the best studied herb for supporting mental performance. Ginkgo improves both memory and concentration.
- Amino acids: Amino acids such as carnitine, tyrosine, and others have been shown to improve mental functioning and should be included in your memory-improvement program.
Improving your memory and concentration is not that hard, but does take some focus. Adding more fresh fruits and vegetables, getting some exercise, practicing relaxation and using the best supplements will make your memory problems something you can forget.
- Lupien SJ, Lepage M: Stress, memory, and the hippocampus: can't live with it, can't live without it. Behav Brain Res. 2001 Dec 14;127(1-2):137-58.
- Lupien SJ, Maheu F, et al: The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition. Brain Cogn. 2007 Apr 25
- Emery CF, Huppert FA, Schein RL: Relationships among age, exercise, health, and cognitive function in a British sample. Gerontologist 1995;35(3):37885.