Do you ever close your eyes and enjoy the nostalgia brought on by remembering good times with friends, family, your first date? Our memories are precious, especially as we get older, or if we are unable to go out and have new adventures because of physical or mental limitations.
Our memories are a valuable and fragile part of who we are, yet we don’t often think of how we might be able to preserve and even enhance this priceless resource. There are ways to do so, however, and the earlier we begin them, the better chance we have of staying sharp throughout our lives.
Practice Makes Perfect
Many older people joke about failing memory by saying, “I’m having a senior moment.” But memory does not have to get worse with age. Because memory is a function of the physical workings of the brain, the health of the whole body is going to make a big difference. Nutrition, exercise, positive thinking and using our minds for studying new things (like a language, musical instrument or anything we find fascinating) all can help boost brain power.
Problems with memory aren’t often the primary reason people come in to see me, but the issue frequently arises during consultations. Over the years, many patients older than 40 or 50 have mentioned they have trouble remembering names, numbers, where they put their keys and things they have to do during the day. Women have told me they have more trouble with memory before and during their menses, which might relate to changes in estrogen and other hormones. I have noticed that patients with cardiovascular disease and liver disease often have memory problems.
The Stress Connection
A patient I saw regularly for a number of years, Sam, represents many people I have talked with who complain about memory loss. Sam was 52 years old, had a stressful job, two kids in college, was somewhat overweight, and enjoyed drinking coffee in the morning and alcohol at night.
“It all started about two years ago when I couldn’t find my car keys several times in one week,” Sam told me. “I had to search for 20 minutes the first time, and after a few days, it happened again. Then I started having a lot of trouble remembering names of people I met in my job. I had to carry a notebook and write everything down.”
As I examined Sam’s tongue, I noticed it had a bright-red tip, and it was shaky (trembling), swollen, had “teeth” marks and a glistening, wet surface. Along with a weak pulse, these were sure signs of spleen qi deficiency, and the red tip of “heart fire.” This is an extremely common pattern in our contemporary world. The spleen system (primarily digestion and immune function) is associated with pensiveness or worry — too much thinking.
Sam was a perfect example of someone who was stressed-out and rundown by too much work and worry. His sleep was affected, his nervous system was on edge and his flight-or-fight (sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system) was over-aroused. His digestion also was a problem.
Try a Comprehensive Health Plan
We discussed an overall plan for improving Sam’s memory. Many memory problems stem simply from laziness of the mind. When life slips into an endless round of the same routine — work, mundane chores, television and other entertainment — the mind can become dull. The mind, like the muscles of our body, is designed to be stimulated and challenged by the study of new things. Science supports this idea by showing that learning new types of information can improve memory performance well into our 80s.
Sam’s memory problems seemed to be related to excessive worry and overstimulation with caffeine and sugar. Some dietary guidelines I recommended for Sam, and many of my patients with poor memory, include eating enough green vegetables (for their mineral content); whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and nutritional yeast (for B vitamins); and good-quality fatty acids found in nuts, seeds, fish and fish oil supplements. Sam ate meat, but his diet didn’t include much fish, grains or beans. He agreed to add a daily fish oil supplement with DHA and EPA, along with a nutritional supplement that contained all the B vitamins and major minerals.
Sam had read about ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) for enhancing memory. A number of modern studies show ginkgo can support memory function of elderly patients with dementia. The dose of a standardized extract is 60 mg three times daily, or 2 capsules in the morning and 1 in the evening.
Studies are less clear about the benefit of ginkgo supplementation in younger people with no diagnosis of dementia. My experience tells me that ginkgo works best for patients who have some vessel blockage, especially if they are older than 55. It is probably not very effective when a healthy person just wants to enhance their memory for a period of time, such as during an exam, or for memory problems due to worry and stress, accompanied by qi (vital energy) and blood deficiency, as was the case with Sam.
Herbal Memory Aids
I had my pharmacist make up two high-potency formulas for Sam. The first contained several “memory herbs” frequently recommended by herbalists and that have some science behind them. Here is the memory formula:
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Well-known herb to increase energy; some studies show memory benefit, while others show little effect. This may be because not everyone has the same underlying organ imbalance. Ginseng is especially useful for people like Sam, with spleen qi (digestive) deficiency.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). “Rosemary for remembrance” is a saying that goes back to the 16th century or longer. No studies on memory enhancement are available, but rosemary does have potent antioxidant effects and blood-moving properties.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica). An ancient Ayurvedic herb sold by street vendors as a green drink in many parts of Indonesia and Asia to improve the mind and memory. There are no definitive Western studies on its effectiveness.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). The most talked-about new herb of the last few years for improving memory and stamina. Widely respected in Scandinavia and Russia as a folk remedy, rhodiola recently has been the subject of some promising new studies on memory enhancement.
The second formula we made for Sam contained tonic herbs for the qi and blood. These included dong quai (Angelica sinensis), which is an excellent blood tonic; ginseng; licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra); and the Chinese herb atractylodes (Atractylodes spp.). Western herbalists might recommend burdock root (Arctium lappa), gentian (Gentiana lutea), angelica (Angelica archangelica) and nettle (Urtica dioica) for the same purpose.
Sam was a good patient and took his herbs regularly. He also received regular acupuncture treatments to strengthen his blood and qi, for at least two months. He began to notice a decided improvement after a few weeks, and he was enthusiastic enough to start a night class in computer graphic design. This made me very happy, because I am convinced that the most effective programs should be made up of several elements — in this case education, diet, acupuncture and herbs.
Christopher Hobbs’ case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbal- ist, is the creator of the correspondence course Foundations of Herbalism; www.FoundationsOfHerbal ism.com.
“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health- care provider.