The short answer is yes, but to understand how
stress can affect your health and the links between memory loss and
stress, it may be helpful to look at the stress response itself and how
it functions within the body.
What is stress?
Experiences that are physiologically and/or
emotionally challenging produce the state we think of as STRESS. The
body's stress response is not in and of itself a bad thing. Rather it
is a crucial survival tool and can be incredibly helpful in the right
situations. However, chronic stress damages the body and has serious
effects on the mind. In fact, it is one of the major causes of memory
loss and memory problems in otherwise healthy adults.
How the body reacts to stress?
Whether we are running for our lives, cramming for
an exam or
walking into a job interview, our brain releases the stress-related
hormones adrenaline and cortisol to help our bodies cope in moments of
Adrenaline increases the heart rate and blood
pressure, providing extra energy. This is what we think of as the fight
or flight response.
Cortisol increases glucose in the blood and
shuts down certain non-essential functions like reproduction and
digestion so the body has more energy for the task at hand.
When the crisis is over, the body returns to its
previously calm state and these hormones return to regular levels. All
of this is well and good but when the crisis does not abate and we
remain in a “stressed out” state for days or weeks on end, we have
moved from acute (healthy) stress to chronic (unhealthy) stress.
What is chronic stress?
The stress response is intended to be an answer to
short-term problems like being chased by a swarm of bees or rushing into
With chronic stress however, the body remains in
this heightened state for prolonged periods and the stress hormones run
rampant within the body. Among the common chronic stress disorders are
a weakened immune system, ulcers and heartburn, impotence or
infertility, flare ups of acne, psoriasis and
eczema, a heightened risk of cardiac arrest and memory problems.
How does chronic stress affect memory?
Chronic stress affects both the encoding (saving)
and retrieval (remembering) of information. When the brain is flooded
with stress hormones for extended periods, we can suffer memory loss as
well as reducing the ability to learn and store new memories. High levels of the
hormone cortisol can be particularly damaging, interfering with
communication between neurotransmitters in the brain, diverting energy
to other parts of the body and inhibiting learning.
The point at which cortisol and memory clash is in
the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory formation.
This part of the brain is sensitive to excessive amounts of cortisol
and over time, with no relief from the stress state, it can begin to
shrink resulting in loss of memory and difficulty forming new memories.
Reducing stress can, in most cases, restore brain
function to its previous state including information storage and
retrieval. Understanding how stress affects your health as well as the
link between memory problems and stress is the first step towards
making the necessary changes to fight against memory loss from
In her TED Talk, Dr Jamie Tartar,
Professor of Psychology from Nova South Eastern University uses humor
and stories from her life to explain the impact chronic stress has on
How to reduce stress and improve your memory?
While we can work over the long-term to remove
certain stressors from our lives, it is unrealistic to think that we
can completely overcome stress and shake off the effects of chronic
stress immediately. What we can do, however, is make small changes to
our daily lives that reduce its effects on our bodies and minds. Below
are a number of natural ways to relieve stress:
Diet – Many of the foods recommended to combat
the long- term effects of stress also play a part in improving memory.
Among these are berries, nuts, fish and other lean proteins, fresh
vegetables, green tea, hearty whole grains and dark chocolate. Brain
Foods like blueberries, avocados and wild salmon are particularly good
for memory boosting as they contain antioxidants and essential
vitamins. Incorporating these powerful foods into your diet can help
you reduce stress and protect your memory health.
Physical exercise – Finding and maintaining an
exercise routine that you enjoy can help you beat stress and improve
your memory. Exercise releases endorphins which improves mood and
cognitive function while reducing overall fatigue by promoting restful
sleep. Whether it's a brisk walk around the block, joining a
competitive sports team or taking up yoga at the local gym, getting
physical is one of the best stress management strategies.
Massage – Stop considering massage a luxury and
start thinking of it as good medicine and natural stress relief.
Studies have shown a reduction of stress symptoms as well as a decrease
in the stress hormone cortisol immediately following a massage session.
Whether it's a professional Shiatsu or Swedish massage or merely a
friend rubbing your shoulders.
Breathing exercises – Deep breathing is one of
the simplest techniques to relieve stress. It activates the body's
natural relaxation response by sending a calming message to the brain.
Practiced independently or in conjunction with yoga or meditation, 10 –
30 minutes of deep, measured breathing can greatly reduce the effects
of chronic stress. There are many specific techniques available for
learning and practice on the Internet. Find the one that is right for
Mindfulness - The practice of Mindfulness comes
to us from the Buddhist tradition but is not inherently religious and
can be taught independent of Buddhism. In a nutshell, mindfulness is
the practice of focusing one's attention on the moment at hand,
experiencing and connecting to the world around us and “being fully
present”. Practicing mindfulness stress reduction has the effect of
clearing away the mental clutter for brief periods, giving the mind
(and body) a break from the accumulation of stress we are so often
Acupuncture – For generations, practitioners of
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have used acupuncture as a method of
relieving and coping with stress. Studies have shown that acupuncture
releases endorphins and increases the mood elevating chemicals
melatonin, serotonin and dopamine within the body. Like massage, it
also provides a “time out” from daily stressors, allowing patients to
relax and recharge.
and supplements – Vitamins A, B
complex, C and E are the keys vitamins for stress management.
with Omega 3 fatty acids, Calcium, Magnesium and Melatonin, these
crucial vitamins will help your body fight the effects of long term
stress, promote calm and improve mood.