How Lack of Sleep, Inactivity and Stress May Cause Memory Loss

Science has long studied the effects of memory loss in a singular fashion. Who it affects, which populations are at risk and if and what people can do to slow the progression? What the medical field lacks is finding the root cause of memory loss and using a systems-based approach; looking at the body as a whole. In order to help people gain their lives back, it is imperative that we understand how to check in with all our body systems to find the root causes of imbalance.

 

Until recently, scientists didn’t truly understand the importance of how lack of sleep, chronic stress and an inactive lifestyle can impact the risk of memory loss later in life. It turns out, women are twice as likely to suffer from memory loss and the risk factors for women vary drastically from their male counterparts.

Women are bold and beautiful. Women wear the many hats of nurturers, caregivers, secret keepers, chauffeur, chef, cleaning service, record keepers and appointment setters. In traditional American society we simply expect women to be able to do it all. While women are exceptionally capable beings; the exchange of output energy that women give is hardly matched by the intake of restorative energy. Without a reprieve for self-care women are, in turn, chronically stressed. Women are silently suffering.

 

‘According to the World Health Organization, stress has been dubbed the ‘Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” [1]. Chronic stress can be associated with hypertension, mental disorders, heart disease, emotional distress, changes in organ shape and functioning. The brain, in particular, has a shrinking effect when it’s chronically exposed to the stress hormone, cortisol. Stanford expert on Stress and the Brain, Robert Sapolski ‘said that the work of several research groups shows links between long-term stressful life experiences, long-term exposure to hormones produced during stress, and shrinking of the part of the brain involved in some types of memory and learning’. [2] The hippocampus is the area of the brain damaged by prolonged exposure to stress hormones. The good news is that science has illustrated that the brain has self-restoring abilities. In the case where stress is reduced significantly, and aerobic exercise is introduced, the hippocampus can grow and restore cognitive function.

 

‘The hippocampus is the structural part of the temporal lobe that is shown to be plastic and vulnerable to toxic stimuli’ [3]. As the hippocampus is exposed to the toxic stimuli that the stress hormone, cortisol, can become after long periods of time; it begins to shrink. As this part of our brain atrophies and brain cells die, so do our memories. To avoid impaired cognitive function, science says that introducing aerobic activity (any activity that causes an increase in heart rate and produces sweat) to our lives, we can significantly change the risk for memory loss. “The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells. Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.” [4] The hippocampus is also an imperative part of the brain when it comes to spatial navigation, emotional behaviors and the regulation of hypothalamus function. Hypothalamus function is critical as this is the hormone system of your body and hormones regulate every cell in our body. It also seems that a link exists between the health of the hippocampus and the dysregulation of thyroid related diseases like autoimmune disease. In any case, adding movement into your daily routine (150 minutes of moderate activity per week) [5] could possibly reduce brain fog, improve cognition, reduce insulin resistance, fight inflammation, and improve sleep patterns.

 

Unhealthy sleep patterns happen to the majority of people at some point in our lives. Trauma, shift work, having small children (or teenagers), being a caregiver to a parent, stress and emotional disturbances like anxiety can prevent someone from getting the recommended 7-9 hours of quality sleep. You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, ‘I can’t remember the last time I slept a solid 7 hours and felt rested’. I can assure you, I asked myself the same thing while I researched sleep and the brain. As I researched, I discovered links between how much sleep we get and how it may correlate with our risk for memory loss later in life. Sleep is a restorative act the body goes through, however, up until recently scientists hadn’t conclusively determined our innate need for sleep. Thanks to advancements in technology and the ability to photograph the brain through the use of MRI technology, researchers have discovered that the brain goes through a rhythmic cleaning cycle during sleep. As we enter deep sleep (a couple hours into our sleep cycle) our cerebrospinal fluid reticulates to clear out toxins that build up in our wake state. ‘Furthermore, the concentration of Beta Amyloid plaque β-amyloid (Aβ) is higher in the awake state than during sleep, suggesting that wakefulness is associated with producing Beta Amyloid plaques (Aβ) (3), while sleep is associated with its clearance’.[6] If our body is unable to achieve quality restful sleep, our brain is not afforded the time to clear the memory loss causing beta amyloid plaque which results in memory loss diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. As technology advances, we can get a clear picture of the brain’s restorative processes, which is positive. But with technological advancements come caveats that could be disrupting our sleep more than helping it. Watching TV or doom scrolling on our phones before bed has a huge impact on how our brain recognizes signaling to wind down. To improve sleep patterns, you should develop a ‘wind down’ routine that you do every night. Non-Negotiable. This can look as simple as replacing your phone with reading a book and making sure you’re getting adequate activity throughout your day to burn extra energy. If you’ve integrated a consistent ‘wind down’ routine and you’re still unable to achieve restful sleep, consult with your doctor about sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea.

 

If you’re a woman in your 40’s or 50’s or know someone that is, LISTEN UP. Lack of sleep, chronic stress and inactivity are common issues that arise when we enter peri/menopause. These issues are compounded at once and have a massive impact on our brain. Women are bold and beautiful. Women wear the many hats of nurturers, caregivers, secret keepers, chauffeur, chef, cleaning service, record keepers and appointment setters. As you give all these non-negotiables to others, make sure you’re keeping some for yourself. You Matter Too, and you cannot pour from an empty cup.

 

Becoming well takes practice and persistence. It often consists of routines, boundaries, and acts of self-love. But you can achieve it. By integrating small changes in our lives, we can restore our bodies to true well-being.

 

 

 

Cited Sources

 

[1] Fink, G. (2016, April 26). Stress: The health epidemic of the 21st Century: Scitech Connect. Elsevier SciTechConnect. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/stress-health-epidemic-21st-century/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CStress%E2%80%9D%20has%20been%20dubbed%20the,physical%20health%20can%20be%20devastating.

[2] Sapolsky, R. (1996, August 14). New studies of human brains show stress may shrink neurons. New studies of human brains show stress may shrink neurons (8/96). Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://news.stanford.edu/pr/96/960814shrnkgbrain.html

[3] Anand, K. S., & Dhikav, V. (2012, October). Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3548359/#:~:text=Abstract,of%20neurological%20and%20psychiatric%20disorders.

[4] Anand, K. S., & Dhikav, V. (2012, October). Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3548359/#:~:text=Abstract,of%20neurological%20and%20psychiatric%20disorders.

[5] Godman, H. (2014, April 10). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harvard Health. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110#:~:text=In%20a%20study%20done%20at,in%20verbal%20memory%20and%20learning.

[6] R. J. Bateman, L. Y. Munsell, J. C. Morris, R. Swarm, K. E. Yarasheski, D. M. Holtzman, Human amyloid-β synthesis and clearance rates as measured in cerebrospinal fluid in vivo. Nat. Med. 12, 856–861 (2006).