BlogThursday 30 Jul 2015

Powering up the brain: why sleep, a healthy diet and exercise can boost the memory

If you’ve ever worked a night shift, been up all night with a newborn or partied until sunrise you’ll know how sleep deprivation can render you a zombie. Come daylight, it can be a struggle to remember even the simplest things like where you parked your car, your mother’s birth date or your pin number.

While we might think we can sacrifice the z’s to cram more into life, study after study, has shown that long-term, sleep deprivation has a deleterious effect on our memory. 

According to the Harvard Medical School people who regularly miss out on sleep are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, and narrowed blood vessels. If that’s not scary enough, these conditions can limit blood flow inside the brain and rob the grey matter of oxygen and sugar. 

The end result: brain cells that perform like C-minus students instead of A-plus ones.

Without a good memory, it’s difficult to learn new things, put data into context and recall facts when you need them, so make sure you aim for at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Your brain cells will thank you.

Healthy food: a recipe for a good memory 

It’s not just pillow time that’s vital for memory; many studies have also looked at the link between memory and diet.

In a landmark study by the University of New South Wales, rats that were fed a diet high in fat and sugar had impaired memory after just one week! What’s more, the lab rats showed inflammation of the hippocampal region of the brain, which is associated with spatial memory. It’s enough to make you want to give up donuts forever.

On the flip side, a major US study by the National Institute on Ageing found that foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, oily fish, olive oil and whole grains, appear to not only help boost concentration and memory, but may help prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Eggs and green tea are also star ‘brain food’ performers … and don’t forget tyrosine. No, it’s not a banned substance – but a key amino acid linked to long-term memory function and found in turkey, chicken, red meat, almonds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, avocados, yoghurt, milk and cheese.

As for alcohol, what your mum said was true: too much literally kills brain cells. Now that’s a scary thought. However, red wine may be okay. At least it has resveratrol, a flavonoid that increases blood flow in the brain and may protect against dementia. 

Exercise can amp up the memory too

We all know that exercise is good for us in so many ways, but did you know it’s good for your brain as well?

University of Adelaide neuroscientists found that just one session of aerobic exercise was enough to promote positive changes in the brain that could improve memory and motor skills. 

When a group of young people were monitored for brain changes immediately after vigorous exercise, researchers found their brain plasticity had improved straight away.

According to research leader Associate Professor Michael Ridding from the University’s Robinson Research Institute:

“Plasticity in the brain is important for learning, memory and motor skill coordination. The more ‘plastic’ the brain becomes, the more it’s able to reorganise itself, modifying the number and strength of connections between nerve cells and different brain areas.”Associate Professor Michael Ridding, University of Adelaide

Nurture your memory 

Obviously, our memory is a pretty valuable commodity.

Amazing to think that memory function can be affected by so many lifestyle factors.

So if you want your memory and thinking skills to perform at their best, make sure you get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet and pull on the runners for regular aerobic exercise. 

You’re bound to notice an improvement. With any luck, you might even remember where you parked the car as well.