Understanding Memory and How to Enhance it

Understanding Memory and How to Enhance it

What is memory and how can I improve it?

Our current knowledge of memory and how it works in the brain is still evolving, but essentially we understand it as "distributed processing" because memories appear to be stored brain-wide rather than in specific locations. One complete memory is broken down into elements. Each element is located in different parts of the brain, such that, for instance, remembering how to drive a car incorporates a memory element about how to use a gearbox from one part of the brain, memory about how to get somewhere from another part of the brain, memory about how to safely avoid accidents with other objects and drivers from another, and so on.

Each element is "encoded" in an area of the brain associated with its sense (i.e. sight, touch, hearing, etc), its mechanics (i.e. visual cortex, motor cortex, etc) and whether it is short term or long term. Basically, when something happens to you, the brain writes the event in its various formats into appropriate areas and when you need to recall these memories, the brain re-activates the same neural patterns.

It is really a quite remarkable system (that we are only just beginning to fully appreciate), sort of like a web of distributed information packets that are joined together to form an entire memory of something (very similar to digital packets.)

Even though a full understanding of this complex process is difficult, what we do know is that it is a highly-demanding activity that requires plenty of energy and blood flow. It relies on having both a healthy circulatory and nervous system, so when it comes to making your memory as healthy and effective as possible, we know exactly where to focus.

Supplying energy and blood to the brain are key to enhancing and maximizing your memory.

Blood is essentially the transport train that delivers the energy to the brain in the form of glucose. The most important thing you can do to improve and boost your memory and your overall brain function is to get as much flowing to it as possible (in fact, your brain requires over a fifth of the total blood pumped by the heart every day.)

So to boost your memory, feed your heart and get it pumping!

First and foremost, exercise is a sure way to get your heart pumping and thereby blood flowing, obviously. Each beat sends a rush of blood to the brain that promotes new cell and dendrite growth as well as optimal glycolyzation. I won't beat a dead horse, so suffice it to say that an intense 30 minute aerobic workout each day will do the job. Any more than 40 minutes and you start to produce cortisol, so keep it below that and keep it a regular habit. It will do wonders for keeping you, your memory, and your brain young and healthy.

As an interesting aside, sexual activity is an excellent activity because beside the exertion, there are a number of associated hormones and chemicals released that have a very positive effect on mental function. And of course, we can't mention exercise without stipulating the mental aspect too. Exercise is not just about physical activity. The brain, like any muscle, grows with use, so make a habit of doing puzzles, mind games or any mental challenge that forces you to put on your thinking cap. And although counter-intuitive, meditation, the act of not using your brain, actually increases blood flow too, so add it your regimen for improving your memory.

Next, avoid any activity that restricts blood flow. Things like smoking nicotine, drinking coffee or alcohol are highly constricting to arteries and blood circulation, so eliminate them and prevent any associated dysfunction or decline.

Clearly another major factor in memory function is diet.

Number one when feeding your brain to support memory are omega fatty acids.

Foods like nuts, seeds, fatty fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies, etc), avocados, and olive oil are rich in omega's, hands down the most important nutrient for your memory. Studies show that these fats are fundamental to healthy nerves and blood vessels and to their growth. One omega-3 fatty acid called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) comprises more than 30% of the structural matter in the brain, making it a prime resource to keep replenished.

A University of Kentucky study found a direct correlation between DHA levels and memory function. Animal studies show that diets deficient in DHA result in impaired learning and memory, and that these impairments are reversed when levels are replenished (Gamoh S, Hashimoto M, Hossain S, Masumura S. Chronic administration of docosahexaenoic acid improves the performance of radial arm maze task in aged rats. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2001.)

Moreover, DHA has been scientifically acknowledged for its capacity to prevent age-related memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3's impacts on nervous system cells include not just structural membrane effects (fluidity), but also cell signaling, neuro-transmitters, receptor expression and function. For maintaining optimal memory function, the importance of getting proper levels of these fatty acids in your diet cannot be overstated. If you are like many people and look to supplements for your omega 3's, make sure you find a high-grade, mercury-free fish oil supplement.

The other key nutrients to keep your memory in top condition are:

Anti-oxidants like vitamins E, C, beta-carotene, etc, are very important. Add plenty of the red, yellow, green, and black vegetables and fruits (leafy greens, berries, peppers, eggplant, papaya, tomatoes, and the like) that are rich in phyto-nutrients, flavonoids and carotenoid pigments. They also fight off free radicals which play a large role in neuro-degeneration, particularly memory (as we see with Alzheimer's.) Read this post that focuses on these foods.

Minerals like magnesium, zinc, iron, lithium, manganese, etc, are important for all brain function. These nutrients are basic to neuro-transmitter production, and the levels and balance among the neurotransmitters affects cognitive function and memory. Magnesium in particular is critical, especially as it is highly neuro-protective (so much so that some doctors give it to brain surgery patients before and during brain surgery.) Research clearly shows that deficiencies of minerals like iron, copper, zinc, etc are linked to memory problems. Look for red meat, fish, avocados, and whole grains to get a good supply of crucial minerals.

All B-complex vitamins, but particularly B6, folate, and choline are crucial to memory function. Neuro-transmitters, chemical messengers that send signals back and forth between our nerves, cannot be synthesized without B vitamins. Look for foods high in these vitamins like liver, egg yolk, beans, fish, avocados, and whole grains, or find them in a high-quality memory support supplement.

Amino acids like tyrosine, serine, carnitine, etc, are the final category of necessary nutrients to ensure good memory and brain health.  Like minerals, amino acids are important to neuro-transmitter production as well, and are the foundation for monoamines (neuro-transmitters like dopamine.) Eat avocados, fish, and lean, low-fat meats to obtain these nutrients.

Try to get your nutrition from a broad range of foods, and if you are looking for a supplement to add to your regimen to support optimal memory, make sure it is high-quality and is derived from whole food sources. And to underscore it one last time, physical and mental exercise are the big guns, so make them a regular part of your life and you will have a sharp and quick memory well into your twilight years. If you are planning on modifying your regimen to improve your memory, consult with your doctor to ascertain your specific nutrient requirements, and to make sure you are making the right choices for your body.

Related Posts: 
Food for Thought - 5 Basic Foods to Keep Your Brain & Memory Healthy
The Marvel of Vinpocetine for Better Brain Health

Harrison BJ, Olver JS, Norman TR, Burrows, GD, Wesnes KA, Nathan PJ. Selective effects of acute serotonin and catecholamine depletion on memory in healthy women. J Psychopharmacol 2004.
Dhopeshwarkar, G.A. Nutrition and Brain Development. New York: Plenum Press, 1983.
Mahan, L.K. and Escott-Stump, S. Krause's Food, Nutrition, and Diet Therapy. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1996.
Edelson, E. Nutrition and the Brain. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. Content and other information presented on the site are not meant to be medical advice or any substitute for professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard professional medical or mental health advice from your physician or other qualified health provider.

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