Close your eyes. Now, think back to a time in your life when you experienced something truly joyful.
Whatever that time was, picture it in your mind. Can you remember all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes from that day? When you have that picture firmly in your mind, think about how you feel just remembering that day.
Your memories give you a sense of self. They’re what make surroundings familiar, remind you of your past, and give you a way to navigate the future. Our memories make up who we are.
When you remember something, that image isn’t just popping up from thin air. Instead you get that picture from an incredibly complex series of events. Your memory is made up of different systems that help you create, store and recall what you need to remember. Every single thing you remember is a complex picture of that thing. If you think of an object, such as a pencil, your brain not only brings you the object’s name, but it also gives you the shape, function, sounds, and smells. Every aspect of that item is formed in that memory and all those pieces that come together, come from different areas. As science races to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, they’re just beginning to understand how all the pieces come together to form a whole and complete picture.
For a Crash Course on Memories and How They are Made, check out this video:
The first step in creating a memory is encoding. This is a biological function that begins with your senses. Think of the first person you fell in love with. When you met that person, your senses took in information like:
Each separate sensation floods the hippocampus (located in the temporal lobe) in the brain, which takes all those separate experiences and weaves them together into a singular experience and forms a memory of that person.
The hippocampus works with the frontal cortex to analyze the different sensory inputs to decide if they are worth remembering. If the brain thinks they are, they become part of your long-term memory, even though each element is stored separately. Science is still figuring out how the bits and pieces come together as a complete picture.
When you experience an event, your nerve cells connect with other nerve cells at the synapses. Everything that happens in your brain happens at the synapses. The messages are carried through electrical pulses in the gaps between cells.
When the electrical pulses fire, chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are released. These spread across the spaces between the cells and attach themselves to neighboring cells, forming a connection through what are called dendrites. Each brain cell can form thousands of connections.
These connections are not permanent. They can change at any time. Once the dendrites start reaching out to other cells, the cells organize into groups. So when you’re remembering something, the cell that contains the sight sense combines with a cell that has the smell sense, and they combine with the cell that has the taste sense and so on until they are all combined to form the one picture as a memory.
As you learn more, your brain changes to accommodate the new information and more connections are created in your brain. The changes are reinforced the more you practice something. That’s why when you try a new skill, such as playing the piano, it gets easier the more you practice.
One of the key things in memory is that what you pay attention to is a key factor in what you’re remembering. Therefore, exposing yourself to negativity on a regular basis is going to affect how your brain functions, what you remember, and how you remember it. It also means that everything you do and how you take care of yourself can affect how well you remember things as you age.
One of the easiest ways you can take care of your brain and your memory is by the foods you eat. Some foods have a negative impact on our brains and can increase your risk for dementia. Cutting certain key foods out of your diet can help cut your risk of dementia and keep your memories intact for years to come.
Sugary Beverages. Drinks like soda, sports drinks, juice and energy drinks are loaded with sugar. They not only affect your weight, but they can also increase your risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and memory loss. Recent research has found that diets high in sugar lead to cognitive impairment, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, people who have diets high in sugar increase their risk of dementia, even if they don’t have diabetes.
Processed Carbs. You know the ones—the boxed, plastic wrapped, processed carbohydrates. These carbs have a high glycemic index and work like sugar in your body. They raise your blood sugar and insulin. A study done by the School of Medical Science in Sydney Australia found that even one meal that carries a high glycemic index can impair memory in not only our aging population but our children as well. This may be due to the inflammatory effects of these foods on the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory.
Trans Fats. These are unsaturated fats that have a detrimental effect on brain health. Trans fats occur naturally in meat and dairy and the naturally occurring fats are not of concern. It’s the artificially made trans fats that we need to be concerned with. They are found in margarine, shortening, snack foods and prepackaged foods. These foods cause inflammation in the body and when we consume too much of the processed trans fats, it increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, memory loss and cognitive decline.
Processed Foods. We’ve covered some of these foods already. The most important thing to keep in mind is processed foods are usually high in sugar, fats and salt. All of these things are not only unhealthy for your body but cause damage in the brain and affect our memories. It’s best to avoid anything that comes in a box, can or plastic wrapper as much as you can. One study found that people who have increased fat around their organs also have an increased risk of brain tissue damage. Another study of over 18,000 people found that a diet that was highly processed was associated with lower test scores and poor memory.
Aspartame. This is one of the worst food additives ever created. Many people choose foods or beverages with aspartame believing they are doing something healthy by cutting the sugar from their diet. Aspartame contains phenylalanine, methanol and aspartic acid. Phenylalanine is a chemical that can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause damage in the brain. One study found that not only was aspartame not helpful in reducing weight, but the participants who consumed quantities of aspartame were more irritable, reported more symptoms of depression and performed lower on cognitive testing. They also showed a higher risk of stroke and dementia.
Alcohol. In moderation, alcohol can be an enjoyable addition to a social gathering or meal. Excessive consumption of alcohol, however, has serious side effects on the brain. Chronic alcohol use reduces brain volume, changes metabolism, and disrupts the neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for communication and memory.
High Mercury. Mercury is a contaminant and neurological poison that can be stored in animal tissue—most notably fish. If you ingest too much fish with mercury contamination the mercury will spread through the body and concentrate in the brain, liver and kidneys. This will cause brain damage and disruption to our central nervous system. Most fish are not mercury contaminated and are beneficial to our health because they provide Omega 3s. You can eat two to three servings of fish per week unless you’re eating shark or swordfish. Then consume only one serving per week.
What you eat has a big impact on your brain health. Keeping your memories alive is an important part of being who you are, so make sure you’re choosing fresh, healthy foods for a vital memory. And if you want to read more about what foods are great for the brain, check out our blog on The Best Foods for Brain Health HERE.
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