Memory and Concentration
Are your thoughts as sharp as tacks? Remembering names and numbers no problem? Ideas flow as swift and strong as the Mississippi? Do you breeze through your working day clear-headed and efficient? You do? How nice. Unfortunately, there are many people for whom a clear and focused mind is a rare pleasure.
Poor memory, also known as CRAFT disease (Can’t Remember A Fanciful Thing), and poor concentration are common complaints, even for people in their 30s and 40s. There is only so much one little mind can deal with, which can mean less important facts, like your daughter’s boyfriend’s name, can escape you. As long as you remember to feed the dog.
Behind the scenes
Memory is either immediate (covering the past few seconds); intermediate (up until the past few days); or long-term (extending back to childhood). The immense amount of information that humans are able to process is staggering and memory plays an indispensable part in that process. We take our ability to remember things for granted – until we start to lose it.
From time to time, everyone forgets names and appointments – either from being too tired, too busy or because facts just slip the mind. However, sometimes there is an underlying physical reason for your poor memory. Answer yes or no to the following questions.
- Are you experiencing an increased difficulty in learning new tasks? - Do you frequently forget material you have just read?
- Are you forgetting people’s names or appointments? - Are you forgetting where you’ve placed your keys?
- Have you been told you are repeating yourself?
- Are concentrating and focusing becoming more difficult? - Are everyday tasks like sending emails, making calculations or recording TV shows becoming more difficult?
Responding yes to 3 of these questions is normal, but if you said yes to 4 or more, you may be experiencing memory problems. If the suggestions in this chapter don’t help and your memory keeps deteriorating, check with your doctor to rule out dementia.
What causes it?
- Stress. Lapses of memory and poor concentration are often the result of an overcrowded and stressful life. The hormone cortisol, which literally floods the body during times of stress, can cloud the mind.
- Alcohol. Although you might be the life of the party after a few drinks, alcohol is actually a depressant, sedating the nervous system and reducing the normal amount of stimuli the brain receives.
- Avoid or reduce recreational drugs such as ecstasy, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana. To get the most out of your brain cells, it’s best not to harm them.
- Dementia is where there are changes to the brain. The most common kind of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms may include changes to language, personality, cognitive skills and memory.
- Age is not a cause of poor memory or concentration, although dementia is more common among the elderly.
- Poor circulation. The brain keeps all the body’s systems shipshape – from maintaining body temperature to releasing hormones and controlling organs – and requires a steady supply of oxygen. Poor circulation can be due to insufficient exercise, cigarettes, low thyroid activity or atherosclerosis.
- Blood glucose. The one fuel all nervous tissue requires, including the brain, is glucose. This requirement for glucose does not mean you should scoff lollies all day long, but eat a low-glycaemic diet that releases a steady flow of glucose.
- Depression and anxiety can increase cortisol and affect neurotransmitters and brain function. As a result, this can be a common cause of lapses in memory and concentration.
- Food sensitivity. Poor memory and concentration can result from a reaction to a food or chemical to which you are sensitive.
- Prescription medication such as antidepressants, tranquillisers and blood-pressure medication may be the cause of your mental fogginess. Do not reduce or discontinue your medication without talking to your doctor first.
- A few days of brain fog and confusion, or ‘chemobrain’, after chemotherapy treatment can be common.
- Nerve or brain diseases (such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis), or a trauma to the head, can all affect memory and concentration.
- PMS, menopause and pregnancy are times of surging hormones. For some women this can affect their concentration levels.
- Insufficient sleep. If you are an insomniac or burn the candle at both ends, this can have a negative impact on your ability to think clearly. See Insomnia on page 00.
What to do?
- The brain relies on a steady flow of blood glucose. Symptoms resulting from a less than continuous supply of glucose may include poor concentration and memory, fatigue, irritability, hunger or nausea and dizziness. The trick is to keep your blood-glucose levels constant by eating a small meal every 2–3 hours that contains a little protein. Breakfast is particularly important, something along the lines of an omelette, baked beans or feta and avocado on toast. Studies performed on school children that missed breakfast showed that they had poor concentration and lowered academic performance.
- A dehydrated brain is a sluggish brain. Make sure you are drinking at least 2 litres of fluid a day, including lots of fresh water.
- Avoid sugar. It won’t make you smarter. Even though you’ll feel a buzz for a short while, the resulting crash can affect your mental processes. Don’t be a dill; give sugar a miss. This includes sugar found in packaged and processed foods.
- Many people drink coffee to keep them alert. And that is exactly what it does. A cup of coffee or more can increase your capacity for intellectual work, decrease drowsiness and promote a more rapid and clear flow of thought. However, keep it to just a couple of cups a day.
- Tea contains a little caffeine that can help keep you on your mental toes, as well as theanine, a compound that can be calming and improve mind function. Theanine is found in all tea: green, black, oolong and white.
- The omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) can help cognition, memory and concentration. It is found in fish (which is why fish used to be called brain food), and can be converted in the body from all omega-3 fatty acids as found in chia seeds, linseeds and walnuts.
- If you notice that your concentration falters after eating some foods, try to nail down if you might have a food sensitivity by avoiding that food for a month. Possibilities include wheat, diary, chocolate, eggs and soy. Also look at preservatives and colourings.
- Gingko biloba can help with difficulties in concentration and memory, absentmindedness and mental fatigue and has a reputation for treating cerebral insufficiency. (Don’t we all feel cerebrally insufficient at some time or another?)
- Many herbs sharpen the mind. Other herbs that have been used over the centuries to improve memory and concentration include brahmi, gotu kola, rosemary, sage, lemon balm and rhodiola. Sage was revered by the ancient Greeks and more recently, in the 1597(!), John Gerard, botanist and herbalist, wrote in the widely read herbal that sage “is singularly good for the head and brain and quickeneth the nerves and memory” Even more recently, in the 21st century, sage has found to facilitate the action of the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps with memory and cognition. There are some studies showing that Sage may slow the progression of Alzheimers disease.
Gotu kola combines the ability to relax the body and still the mind, which is why for centuries, it has helped Indian meditators to meditate. It is said to strengthen the crown chakra: the energy centre at the top of the head, which is closest to heaven. Indian elephants love gotu kola leaves, and as everyone knows, elephants never forget. Rosemary, a beloved herb of the Mediterranean, stimulates clear thoughts – ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.’ (Shakespeare). Brahmi is another ancient herb in the Ayurvedic tradition. Not only is it good for improving memory and acquiring and retaining information, brahmi can help regenerate nerves that have been damaged, making it a particularly good herb for recovering from a stroke. A study showed that brahmi reversed memory loss in aged rats. Now, where did I leave my cheese?
- Stress can play mind games. Or rather, it plays with the mind. The stress hormone cortisol dulls concentration and affects memory. The adaptogen group of herbs (see XX on page 00) can help clear the mind and reduce stress. These herbs include Siberian ginseng, licorice, Korean ginseng, schisandra, astragalus, gotu kola, tulsi, rhodiola and withania.
- The amino acid, glutamine, plays a key role as a neurotransmitter in memory and concentration. For best effects, take between meals.
- DHA found in fish oil can help improve cognition. Take a fish oil that contains a fair proportion of DHA to EPA
- Meditation. The Dalai Lama was once heard to say, ‘I have a busy day ahead. I must meditate twice as long.’ Although it’s tempting to keep thinking of all the things you have to do, it is more helpful to clear the mind of clutter for at least a few minutes every day. Regular meditators know that meditation makes them more focused and mentally efficient.
- Buteyko breathing can help the mind in two ways. Firstly, by switching on the relaxing nervous system, it can reduce the stress hormones that so affect concentration, and secondly, it improves circulation to the brain, allowing more oxygen and glucose to nourish those lagging brain cells.
- Music can influence the mind. Studies published in Nature showed first-grade students who participated in special music classes saw their reading and maths skills increase dramatically. Other studies have shown an increase in learning by 24 per cent and memory by 26 per cent after listening to appropriate music. Music that has a rhythm of 60–80 beats a minute is calming and relaxing. Coincidentally (or not) the resting human heart has precisely the same rhythm. Baroque music composed mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries has such a soothing beat. Composers of mind-empowering music include Pachelbel, Debussy and Bach.
- Use it or lose it. Whether it is sudoku, crosswords, bridge or studying for your master’s degree, use the mind you have been blessed with.
- The Bach flower Clematis is good for the absent minded.
- Use it or lose it, but don’t abuse it. Be selective in what you want to remember or devote your mind to. Unless you want to ‘zone out’ (and that’s OK too), choose quality reading material and TV that will enhance your life.
- Heard a good joke lately? Psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional intelligence said that ‘laughter helps people think more broadly and associate more freely’.
- Aromatherapy has a lot to offer the befuddled mind. Smell goes straight to the emotional part of the brain, bypassing thought processes. If our emotions are centred, it is likely that the mind will be too. Burn some aromatherapy oils (rosemary, sage and peppermint) in the room where you need to focus.
Blend these 3 essential oils into a base of 10 ml of brahmi oil. Massage into the scalp and temples.
- 1 drop of basil oil – cephalic
- 3 drops of lemon oil – known for lifting mental fatigue
- 2 drops of rosemary oil – known for remembrance
At a glance
- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration dumbs you down.
- Although the brain relies on a steady flow of blood glucose, this does not mean a diet of jelly snakes and chocolate will improve your mental prowess. Quite the opposite. Eat regular meals comprising low-glycaemic food and avoid sugar.
- Tea and coffee can help you concentrate, but don’t go overboard.
- Fish is brain food. Containing the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, fish helps memory and concentration.
- Stress increases cortisol. Cortisol decreases brain function. The adaptogen group of herbs help the body cope with stress.
- Other herbs such as brahmi, ginkgo biloba, gotu kola, rosemary, sage and rhodiola have been used for centuries to help hone the mind.
- The amino acid, glutamine, is used by the brain as a smart neurotransmitter.
- Meditation calms the mind, reduces stress hormones and allows nerves and neurotransmitters to work their thoughtful magic.
- Buteyko breathing increases the transport of oxygen and glucose to the brain, reducing stress. - Aromatherapy oils can help concentration and memory. Try burning aromatherapy oils or massaging them onto your scalp and temples.
- Laughter and music are good medicine for the mind.