Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Brain feeling drained? Common cognitive issues can have multiple causes — and it’s important to know what’s causing your memory lapses and mental fog before you can treat them. Here, some common causes of cognitive dysfunction, with targeted treatments for each.
Brain drain is especially common during menopause. In one study, 60 percent of menopausal women reported forgetfulness, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating. The reason? Declining levels of estrogen impact brain chemistry, including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, neurotransmitters that affect thinking, memory, and mood. Additionally, stress during menopause can affect cortisol levels, causing insomnia and further exacerbating cognitive function.
- Better your brain. Simple hormone-balancing strategies can improve brain deficits related to menopause. Work with a skilled naturopath, or try hormone-balancing supplements such as red clover, wild yam, or a combination formula. To reduce stress, try yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, and regular meditation. Also, consider adding an anti-stress supplement to your regimen.
We think of depression as causing emotional problems, but studies show it may also result in significant cognitive dysfunction, including deficits in attention, learning, memory, problem-solving ability, and processing speed. Cognitive effects may be secondary to the emotional component of depression — if you’re depressed, you may be less motivated to perform well on tasks, for example. But cognitive symptoms often remain after depression has been treated. This suggests that structural changes in the brain may account for cognitive dysfunction in people with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD ).
- Better your brain. Nutritional supplements can help brain function in people with mild to moderate depression. Some of the best are omega-3 fatty acids, gotu kola, vitamin D, acetyl-l-carnitine, SAMe, and lion’s mane, a medicinal mushroom. In particular, lion’s mane was shown in one study to ease recurrent depressive disorder. Exercise is also critical. It stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth and connectivity of new brain cells.
Unlike other organs and muscles, the brain relies almost exclusively on glucose for fuel, so it’s especially sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Dips in blood glucose levels can have mild to severe effects on cognitive function, including memory, attention, learning, and the ability to perform tasks. High blood sugar is also detrimental to brain function-studies show that chronically elevated blood glucose levels have a negative effect on memory, even at levels below the definition for diabetes or prediabetes.
- Better your brain. Keep your blood sugar levels steady by eating more complex carbs such as beans, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables, and minimize your intake of sugar and flour. Combine carbs with protein and healthy fats, which help the body maintain consistent blood sugar levels. Protein also helps the liver produce glucagon, which further slows and regulates the absorption of glucose. Also, consider adding a combination supplement for blood sugar health.
Ongoing discomfort can cause foggy thinking, impaired memory, and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. One reason: pain-related negative emotions and stress impact cognitive functioning, regardless of pain intensity. And it’s not just that pain is emotionally disturbing. Studies suggest that chronic pain is linked with impaired function of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s critical for memory, learning, and mood.
- Better your brain. Alternative medicine, especially acupuncture, can be extremely effective in treating chronic pain. Yoga, massage, and biofeedback have also been shown to lessen chronic pain. Some supplements that can help: turmeric, or cucumin, an extract of turmeric; glucosamine; chondroitin; MSM; SAMe; devil’s claw; and topical capsaicin.
Alcohol and recreational drug use can cause significant cognitive dysfunction — and it’s not by killing brain cells, as we once believed. Studies suggest heavy drinking makes brain cells release steroids that block long-term memories, a process called long-term potentiation (LTP). This is the phenomenon that’s responsible for blackouts, or periods of memory loss during heavy drinking. Over time, heavy drinking can cause serious changes in the brain, either from the direct effects of alcohol on the brain or indirectly, from liver disease or nutritional deficits.
- Better your brain. Don’t drink every day. Try taking a break for several days, and see how you react. Find alternative ways to deal with stress, and if you think you have a serious problem with alcohol or drugs, get help immediately. Talk to your physician, contact a local detox center, or find a 12-step program in your area.
Undiagnosed food allergies, intolerances, and/or sensitivities can have an impact on cognitive function, from mental fogginess and confusion to ongoing memory problems, impaired learning, and mood swings. An increasingly common one, gluten sensitivity, has been linked with higher levels of cytokines, inflammatory chemicals that damage brain function. Other studies show that a gluten-free diet can significantly improve symptoms of ADHD in gluten-sensitive kids. And sensitivities to other foods may have similar cognitive effects.
- Better your brain. If you have unexplained memory problems, fuzzy thinking, or other cognitive impairments, and suspect that you may have a food allergy or sensitivity, get tested. An IgE ELISA or RAST test and skin testing can diagnose true food allergies; an elimination diet is best for pinpointing sensitivities or intolerances. The easiest way is to eliminate the most common allergens-wheat, gluten, dairy, soy, nuts, eggs, corn, and fish-from your diet and see how your body reacts. Supplements that can help improve your body’s ability to tolerate food sensitivities (not food allergies) include bioflavonoids, vitamin C, pantothenic acid, and digestive enzymes, particularly those designed to target food allergies.
Insomnia can cause alterations in attention and memory, and can impact cognitive function over the long term — not just the day after you lose sleep. Other sleep disturbances, such as sleep apnea-a common but potentially devastating condition in which breathing stops briefly and frequently throughout the night-are linked with memory loss and dementia. And other sleep issues, such as restless leg syndrome or nightmares, can also impair cognitive function.
- Better your brain. Start with good sleep hygiene: make sure your bedroom is dark, avoid caffeine, and don’t eat before bed. Herbs and supplements such as melatonin, valerian, and chamomile can help soothe you to sleep. If you snore loudly or awaken with a dry mouth or headache, get tested for sleep apnea. Because the condition is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, it’s important to diagnose and treat it as soon as possible — not just for cognitive function, but for overall health.
Ginkgo’s Many Gifts
Few herbs are as popular, well researched — or old — as Ginkgo biloba. The roots of the ginkgo tree, noted for its beautiful, fan-shaped leaves, can be traced back some 270 million years. And while ginkgo is native to China, the herb’s name is thought to be a misspelling of the Japanese word gin kyo, or “silver apricot.”
Ginkgo works in several ways to enhance cognition, concentration, and memory: It helps increase blood flow to the brain; it helps kill free radicals, which are associated with mental decline; and it helps protect brain cells from an early death. In one review of 29 double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials, researchers found that the long-term use of ginkgo improves selective attention, some executive processes, and long-term verbal and nonverbal memory.
But the health benefits of ginkgo go way beyond improving memory and cognitive function, says Mary Bove, ND, an expert in herbal medicine. In fact, Bove says that ginkgo can be used “for whole-body wellness.” She has used ginkgo with great results to treat poor circulation, tinnitus, peripheral neuropathy, and depression. Some research shows that ginkgo works synergistically with turmeric and bilberry, helping to block amyloid plaque formation (associated with memory disorders).