Your Brain on Food: The Surprising Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

Your brain is always “on”. It is the command center for all of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your mood and sensations. It is working hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep! This means your brain needs a constant supply of “fuel”. Think of it like gasoline that powers a car, except that brain fuel comes from the foods you eat. And, what’s in that fuel makes all the difference.

You’ve probably already witnessed some effects of food on your brain: a sugar rush after an ice cream binge or a mental fog from hunger when you accidentally worked through lunch. These are short term effects, easily resolved with the appropriate dietary course of action (put the ice cream away!). But what we eat also influences the brain in the long term. In fact, what you eat directly affects your cognitive processes and emotions, and ultimately, your mental health.

The field of “Nutritional Psychiatry/Psychology” is relatively new. Only in the last decade have scientific studies begun to establish a link between overall diet quality and common mental disorders, like depression and anxiety 1. Results of such studies have suggested that higher intakes of a “healthy” diet (i.e., fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains) is associated with a reduced likelihood of depression 2. Conversely, an unhealthy diet (defined by a low intake of healthy, nutrient-rich foods, OR by indulging too often in processed, sugary and fat-laden foods) is linked to mental health disturbances 3. This is true for adults as well as children and adolescents 2. And, it’s true regardless of physical activity and smoking, as well as socioeconomic status, family conflict, and familial/social support 3. There’s no avoiding it: unhealthy diets are associated with mental health problems.

What does this mean for you?

Just like your daily regimen that keeps your heart and skin healthy, you should also be mindful of nourishing your brain – even if you don’t suffer from mental illness. Don’t worry, adopting an entirely new dietary lifestyle isn’t your only option for improving your diet…

  • Eat more healthy fats: Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids don’t just come in fish-oil supplements. Think salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies. For the seafood shy, flaxseed, walnuts, and eggs can give you a boost!
  • Get more protein: A healthy brain needs to create a steady stream of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain, to function properly. The building blocks for these neurotransmitters are molecules called amino acids that come from the protein in our diet. Get high quality protein from pasture-raised meats, eggs, dairy, and beans. And, nutritionists say it’s a good idea to begin the day with a generous helping of your favorite power protein. Fire up the grill tonight; savor leftovers in the morning.
  • Avoid sugar highs: But don’t think of sugar as the enemy. Glucose is actually the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. And because your brain works so hard, it’s the most energy-demanding organ you have. In fact, it consumes one-half of all the sugar energy in your body! The key is that the supply of glucose to the brain needs to be slow and steady, without the peaks and valleys caused by the types of sugar found in junk food. Stick to sugars that are found in vegetables, whole grains, and fruits. Dessert doesn’t have to be sinful – swap out that Neapolitan ice cream for fresh strawberries with a *hint* of chocolate sauce.

The new field of Nutritional Psychiatry is only just starting to produce studies that can influence public health recommendations and clinical practice. But one message is clear: our diet has a profoundly influential impact on our brain and consequently, our mental health 4. Whether you are living with a mental health diagnosis or wanting to maintain an already healthy body and mind, it is important to talk to your doctor about the foods you eat (and those you might not get enough of). Don’t be shy about encouraging your doctor to take a nutrition-minded approach to keep that brain of yours in tip top shape. And, since everything is connected, doing so may well clear up other problems outside of your head. You know they say, an apple a day….


1 F. N. Jacka, “Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next?,” eBioMedicine, vol. 17, pp. 24-29, 2017.

2 J. Lai, S. Hiles, A. Bisquera, A. Hure, M. McEvoy and J. Attia, “A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults,” Am. J. Clin. Nutr., vol. 99, no. 1, pp. 181-197, 2013.

3 S. McMartin, F. Jacka and I. Colman, “The association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders: evidence from five waves of a national survey of Canadians,” Prev. Med., vol. 56, no. 3-4, pp. 225-230, 2013.

4 A. O’Neil, S. Quirk, S. Housden, S. Brennan, L. Williams, J. Pasco, M. Berk and F. Jacka, “Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review,” Am. J. Public Health, vol. 104, no. 10, pp. e31-e42, 2014.

5 F. Jacka, C. Rothon, S. Taylor, M. Berk and S. Stansfeld, “Diet quality and mental health problems in adolescents from East London: a prospective study,” Soc. Psychiatry Psychiatr. Epidemiol., vol. 48, no. 8, pp. 1279-1306, 2013.

6 S. Dash, A. O’Neil and J. FN, “Diet and common mental disorders: the imperative to translate evidence into action,” Front. Public Health, vol. 4, p. 81, 2016.

Chronic pain lives in the brain

When we think about chronic pain, chances are we think of an afflicted body part: an aching lower back, unbearably stiff finger joints, or a throbbing shoulder. But to effectively treat chronic pain, new research says we should be looking to the brain instead of the body.

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting 12 weeks or more, but this definition might be oversimplifying the problem. That is because chronic pain lives on an entirely different scale from your typical “I stubbed my toe” 1-10 pain chart. Chronic pain is more than just a symptom. It’s a debilitating issue that slowly seeps into every aspect of life, preventing you from getting a full night’s sleep, keeping you home from work, and making it a challenge to complete even the simplest daily activities.

Experts estimate that over one hundred million Americas suffer from chronic pain 1. That’s almost a third of the country. And for many people living with chronic pain, even the strongest drugs can fail to damper discomfort. Not to mention that prescription pain killers can come with serious side effects, are addictive, can make pain worse in the long run, and are all too easy to accidentally overdose on.

Despite the toll chronic pain takes, it has not always been well understood. Historically, doctors have focused on treating the physical cause of the pain, assuring patients that relief would come once the injury or disease was cured. But this is often an ineffective approach, and many patients may even be told the pain is all in their head.

Now, though, researchers are starting to rethink the root causes of chronic pain. Rather than seeing it as a lingering version of acute pain, they have begun to recognize it as a complex nervous system disorder that changes the brain’s structure, chemistry, and activity.

How Does Chronic Pain Affect the Brain?

In a way, chronic pain really is “all in the head” – most chronic pain conditions cause literal changes in the brain that reinforce the pain cycle. Neuroscientists call this the “centralization of pain”. It means that pain itself modifies the way the central nervous system works, so that a patient actually becomes more sensitive and experiences more pain with less provocation…

  • Chronic pain changes your brain’s structure. Neuroimaging studies have shown that chronic pain can alter the size of certain brain regions and change the connectivity between these regions 2. The way different parts of the brain “talk” to each other becomes abnormal as a result 3. For example, chronic pain is notorious for affecting a brain region called the dorsolateral prefrontal lobe. This area is involved in cognition, motor planning, and memory. A chronic pain brain will have difficulty performing these functions normally. This explains why many patients experience fear, anxiety, or depression in conjunction with chronic pain 4. Unfortunately, all of these additionally symptoms just exacerbate the underlying pain condition.
  • Chronic pain changes your brain’s chemistry. Chronic pain stimulates the brain to generate abnormal levels of chemicals called neurotransmitters. In the right amount, these chemicals create the perfect balance of activity and inhibition so the brain reaches a “Goldilocks” level of function – not too much or too little, just the right amount. But abnormal amounts of key neurotransmitters prevent certain brain regions from “turning off” when they should. This results in a brain that is overly-sensitive to pain and a stimulates a feed-forward cycle that reinforces the chronic pain state 5.
  • Chronic pain changes your brain’s activity. Scientists have discovered that there is a difference in brain activity patterns among patients with temporary pain and those with long-lasting pain 6. Although the experience of pain feels the same in acute and chronic pain stages, the way the brain processes pain is different. Researchers found that as pain morphs from acute to chronic, the representation of pain in the brain shifts from classical pain areas to brain regions associated with emotion. This might explain why treatments that work well for acute pain patients don’t provide any relief for chronic pain patients with the same injury.

What Can You Do?

It is important to note that while these changes may seem scary or overwhelming, they are not permanent! The brain is moldable and with the right treatment strategy, it can be reprogrammed to set pain processing systems back to normal and halt the centralization of pain from progressing further 7.

If you have yet to find relief for your chronic pain, one treatment option to consider is biofeedback. It has been shown to decrease headache and migraine intensity, reduce chronic muscle pain, and alleviate pain associated with fibromyalgia 8. Other therapies like massage, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and relaxation techniques can also be helpful.

Remember that for a chronic pain treatment to be successful, you need to target the source of the problem – the brain! That means calming down your central nervous system and getting your brain back to a state of balance is the top priority.


1 R. L. Nahin, “Estimates of pain prevalence and severity in adults: United States, 2012,” J Pain, vol. 16, no. 8, pp. 769-80, 2015.

2 A. May, “Structural brain imaging: A window into chronic pain,” The Neuroscientist, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 209-220, 2011.

3 P. Y. Geha, M. N. Baliki, R. N. Harden, B. W. R, T. B. Parrish and A. V. Apkarian, “The brain in chronic CRPS pain: Abnormal gray-white matter interactions in emotional and autonomic regions,” Neuron, vol. 60, no. 4, pp. 570-581, 2008.

4 D. Borsook, “A future without chronic pain: Neuroscience and clinical research,” Cerebrum, vol. May, no. 2012, p. 7, 2012.

5 V. Napadow and R. E. Harris, “What has functional connectivity and chemical neuroimaging in fibromyalgia taught us about the mechanisms and management of ‘centralized’ pain?,” Arthritis Research & Therapy, vol. 16, p. 425, 2014.

6 J. Hashmi, M. Baliki, L. Huang, A. Baria, S. Torbey, K. Hermann, T. Schnitzer and V. Apkarian, “Shape shifting pain: chronification of back pain shifts brain representation from nociceptive to emotional circuits,” Brain, vol. 136, no. 9, pp. 2751-68, 2013.

7 R. Rodriquez-Raeche, A. Niemeier, K. Ihle, W. Ruether and A. May, “Brain Gray Matter Decrease in Chronic Pain Is the Consequence and Not the Cause of Pain,” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 29, no. 44, pp. 13746-50, 2009.

8 D. L. Frank, L. Khorshid, J. F. Kiffer, C. S. Moravec and M. G. McKee, “Biofeedback in medicine: Who, when, why, and how?,” Ment Health Fam Med, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 85-91, 2010.

3 Fundamentals to neuroplasticity and a better brain – at any age!

Neuroplasticity is a favorite buzzword among psychology and neuroscience circles, promising that you can “re-wire” your brain to improve your health, well-being, and even quality of life. It is an umbrella term that refers to the capacity of the brain to change. It argues that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

What is neuroplasticity, and why is it so important?

The discovery of the brain’s capacity to change throughout life has been called the most important neuroscience breakthrough in 400 years. Why? Because neuroplasticity means that you can actually make your brain function better, even as you age.

Neuroplasticity can refer to structural and functional changes in the brain. While the majority of such changes occur in childhood during ‘critical periods’, it is true that our brains remain plastic in adulthood as well. Although the overall rate of change decreases, adults experience new brain cell formation and form new neural connections after learning or experiencing something new.

Even in middle or old age, the brain still adapts very actively to its environment.

Unfortunately, as many people age, the natural loss of brain cells and neural connections happens more quickly than their formation, resulting in mental decline1.

But it doesn’t have to be this way…

Brain plasticity to boost brain fitness

You can use brain plasticity to boost your brain fitness – just keep these 3 fundamentals in mind:

  1. Physical exercise keeps your brain in shape too. It seems that the more we learn about the brain, the more we realize physical exercise is critical to keeping it healthy. The same rule applies for neuroplasticity: exercise promotes new brain cell formation and new neural connections, all the while protecting against mental decline. Even as little as one 30 minute cycling session can temporarily improve brain plasticity2!
  2. Mindfulness matters (really!). Mindfulness is not a hand-wavy approach to building a better brain, we promise. It is actually a legitimate way to enhance your brain function, and there are over 1,000 published scientific studies on its health benefits! People who meditate have stronger neural connections throughout the brain3 and one study even demonstrated that meditation can reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activity4. And, you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to boost neuroplasticity with mindfulness. Starting out with only 2 minutes a day can have an impact – the key is sticking with it!
  3. Brain plasticity goes both ways; it’s just as easy to generate negative changes as it is positive ones. Neural connections are strengthened or weakened based on what you do over and over in daily life. Just as a daily crossword puzzle can help your mind stay sharp, vegging out in front of the TV on a nightly basis will teach your brain bad habits. The good news? Our brains follow the motto “use it or lose it”. Unlearning a habit involves weakening neural connections through disuse. By making the conscious choice to replace your bad habit with a heathier alternative, you can leverage neuroplasticity and make it work in your favor.


By reading this article, you are already on your way to harnessing your brain’s neuroplasticity! Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck tells us that people with a fixed mindset believe their talents and intelligence cannot be changed. These people don’t significantly change as adults. But those with a growth mindset understand that they can continue to develop abilities and increase mental capacities throughout life5. Simply accepting the concept of brain plasticity makes a difference.

Do you fall into the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” camp? It’s never too late to change your mind. Now that you know the truth about neuroplasticity, you can choose to have a growth mindset. That alone can start you on your path to building a better brain, and learning some new tricks.


1 Quantitative evidence for selective dendritic growth in normal human aging but not in senile dementia. Buell, SJ and Coleman, PD. 1, 1981, Brain Res, Vol. 214, pp. 23-41.

2 The influence of a single bout of aerobic exercise on short-interval intracortical excitability. Smith, AE, et al. 6, 2014, Exp Brain Res, Vol. 232, pp. 1875-82.

3 Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Kilpatrick, LA, et al. 1, 2011, Neuroimage, Vol. 56, pp. 290-8.

4 Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. Zeidan, F, et al. 14, 2011, Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 31, p. 5540.

5 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York : Ballantine Books, 2007.

Listen to your head and your heart: Heart Rate Variability 101

Pop duo Roxette said it best: Listen to your heart. Words of wisdom to remember this Valentine’s Day. And, excellent advice when it comes to taking care of your health. In fact, listening to your heart can help you understand what is going on in your head!

One biomarker to rule them all

It’s no secret that doctors encourage patients to place high importance on maintaining heart health. And for good reason – heart disease is still the leading cause of death is the US. Keeping a close eye on biomarkers like cholesterol, heart rate, and blood pressure just comes with the territory of aging. But you could be skipping over a key biomarker that serves as a broad indicator of overall physical and psychological health for people of all ages: heart rate variability.

An introduction to Heart Rate Variability

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in the time between individual heart beats. Rather than simply counting how many times your heart beats per minute, HRV measures how consistent the length of time between each beat is. HRV helps doctors understand if your heart is beating in a simple and predictable pattern, like a metronome, or in a more variable pattern.

  • Low HRV means your heart beats like a metronome and the length of time between each heart beat is nearly identical.
  • High HRV means your heart beats with intervals of varying length.

Although many people assume that a steady, consistent pattern of heart beats (low variability/low HRV) indicates good health, the opposite is actually true. Yes, you read that right — high HRV is a sign of good physical and psychological health! Think of it this way: a healthy heart pumps as needed. It responds to the demands of the body in real time and doesn’t follow a predictable interval.

So, HRV reflects general heart health. But, it does more than that; it also tells us about the state of one’s autonomic nervous system1. This is the part of the nervous system in control of “automatic” (hence autonomic) functions like blood pressure, breathing rate, arousal and digestion. HRV gives us insight to this very valuable aspect of our health that is otherwise very difficult to assess and monitor.

The Autonomic Nervous System: Linking your head and your heart

There is a lot going on in your body that is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. For example, you don’t think about making your heart beat faster or slower – it happens automatically in response to your environment. Because you don’t think about contracting your heart muscles, we say this is an “autonomic” (automatic) function.

In general, low HRV indicates that the sympathetic response is dominant in your autonomic nervous system. This means your body is continually primed for ‘fight or flight’, and you may experience feelings of stress, anxiety, poor sleep or stomach aches.

In contrast, high HRV indicates that the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic response (rest and digest) are well balanced. In this balanced state, your body can easily shift between intense states and calm recovery states in order to maintain balance throughout the day and the night.   This means that you can relax, concentrate, be productive, be active, sleep, and recover. Overall, high HRV indicates better physical and psychological well-being.

How does HRV impact your health?

Low HRV has been identified as a risk factor for several cardiac diseases, including heart attack and congestive heart failure2. And in addition to being an indicator of heart health, HRV is an indicator of resilience. It tells doctors how easily you can handle and bounce back from psychological stressors (like a crazy work week) and physical stressors (like a hard workout at the gym). Low HRV has been linked to negative emotions like hostility and anxiety, clinical depression, and PTSD. On the other hand, high HRV is associated with adaptability, resilience, and healthy longevity3 – the kind of graceful aging that we all desire. With all these benefits of measuring heart health and physical recovery, it’s no wonder why HRV is used to track the health status of patients and elite athletes alike!

What can you do to achieve a high HRV?

By regularly tracking your HRV at home, you can be in tune with your autonomic nervous system. It can help you identify stressors you didn’t even realize were stressors. It can help you decide if your body needs a challenging workout or a day off. And it can give you insight to what is going on in your head.

Once you’ve begun monitoring your HRV, here are three strategies to help you improve it:

  1. Exercise. Many studies have shown that exercise increases HRV. A simple approach? Take a nature walk4! It will be enough exercise to improve HRV without accumulating excess stress in your body. But be sure to give your body enough time to recover after a workout – low HRV is associated with poor strength and aerobic performance5.
  2. HRV biofeedback is a way to become consciously aware of our automatic body functions and train them so we have more control over our health. It has been used to help treat a variety of issues including anxiety, depression, PTSD, hypertension, and cardiac rehabilitation after heart attack6,7. You can use tools like the Waveband, a wrist wearable monitor to track and train your HRV.
  3. Mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches help people focus on the present. Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and mindfulness meditations have helped patients with anxiety and depression reduce their symptoms and balance their emotions8.

The good news about these options? It doesn’t matter which one you choose! Physical activity, HRV biofeedback, and mindfulness are all equally effective in reducing stress and its related symptoms9, which will have your HRV climbing in no time.

This Valentine’s Day, we are following Roxette’s advice. It’s time to listen to our hearts. And we encourage you to do the same – it’ll help you understand your head!


1 Larsen HR. Heart Rate Variability and Atrial Fibrillation. The AFIB Report.

2 Task Force of the European Society of Cardiology, North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology. (1996) Heart Rate Variability: Standards of measurement, physiological interpretation, and clinical use. European Heart Journal. 17:354-381.

3 Silfigar U, Jurivich DA, Gao W, Singer DH. (2010) Relation of high heart rate variability to healthy longevity. Am J Cardiol. 105(8):1181-5.

4 Gladwell VF, et al. (2016) A Lunchtime Walk in Nature Enhances Restoration of Autonomic Control during Night-Time Sleep: Results from a Preliminary Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 13(3): 280.

5 Chen JL, et al. (2011) Parasympathetic nervous activity mirrors recovery status in weightlifting performance after training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 25(6):1546-1552.

6 Berry ME. (2010) Cardiac coherence and posttraumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 16(4):52.

7 Gevirtz R. (2013) The promise of heart rate variability biofeedback: evidence-based applications. Biofeedback 41(3):110-120.

8 Burg JM, Wolf OT, Michalak J. (2012) Mindfulness as self-regulated attention: Associations with heart rate variability. Swiss Journal of Psychology 71.3: 135-139.

9 Van der Zwan JE, de Vente W, Huizink AC, Bogels SM, de Bruin EL. (2015) Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: A randomized control trial. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 40(4):257-68.

New Year, New You: Get moving for your body and your brain!

With the start of 2017, chances are you’ve made some New Year’s Resolutions. If you did, we are willing to bet that living a healthier lifestyle – things like losing weight, exercising more, or eating out less often – made it on your list.

We all know that exercise is good for the body and the brain. It’s no surprise that adopting a healthy lifestyle was ranked #1 for last year’s New Year Resolutions1! But for the days when you would rather watch Friends re-runs than break a sweat, here is some new motivation: physical activity can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years2.

More and more studies are showing that movement is medicine for the mind. So when you opt to bike to work rather than drive, you are strengthening both your body and your brain. Check out these 3 ways that your mental muscles can benefit every time you get your body moving.

  1. Boost your memory. One part of the brain that responds particularly strongly to exercise is the hippocampus. Research studies involving children, adults, and the elderly show that as people get more in shape, the hippocampus grows. This is great news, because the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems. In fact, older adults who did regular exercise performed four times better on cognitive tests than adults who didn’t work out3.
  2. Improve your focus. The best evidence that exercise enhances focus and helps you stay on task comes from studying school children. In one large research study, a daily after-school sports class helped school children get fitter and, surprisingly, it helped improve their executive control. The kids were better at ignoring distractions, multitasking, and maintaining concentration4. Are you eager to score these benefits but worried a daily soccer game isn’t your cup of tea? Fear not. Researchers have also shown that just 10 minutes of playful coordination skills – like bouncing two balls at the same time – can improve attention5.
  3. Slow cognitive decline. Staying physically fit helps keep your brain healthy. And, these cognitive benefits can come from many types of exercise. A brisk 30-45 minute walk, three times a week, can help delay the onset of dementia6. Exercise that improves balance, coordination, or agility can increase brain size enhance cognitive ability7. Weightlifting can have a visible neurological impact8. One research study even showed that a single hour of dancing per week for 6 months bolstered the cognitive wellbeing of elderly participants9. The critical factors that make exercise such an effective tool for maintaining brain health are still being teased out. Scientists think that increased blood flow to the brain, surges of growth hormones, a more robust network of blood vessels, or even the birth of new neurons could be key factors.

So what should you do? Start exercising!

Scientists think that any form of aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping can yield these mental benefits. Walking, jogging, swimming, tennis, squash, dancing… it’s all about finding an activity you enjoy and then getting up and doing it. You’ll be off and on your way to achieving that New Year’s Resolution, and your brain will thank you for it!


1 University of Scranton. J CLin Psych

2 Willey, JZ, et al. 2016. Leisure-time physical activity associates with cognitive decline: The Northern Manhattan Study. Neurology 86(20):1897-1903.

3 Bherer l, Erickson KI, Liu-Ambrose T. 2013. A review of the effects of physical activity and exercise on cognitive and brain functions in older adults. J Aging Res. 2013: 657508.

4 Hillman CH, et al. 2014. Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function. Pediatrics. 134(4):e1063-71.

5 Budde H, et al. 2008. Acute coordinative exercise improves attentional performance in adolescents. Neurosci Lett. 441(2):219-23.

6 Erickson KI, Gildengers AG, Butters MA. 2013. Physical activity and brain plasticity in late adulthood. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 15(1):99-108.

7 Niemann C, Godde B, Staudinger UM, Voelcker-Rehage C. 2014. Exercise-induced changes in basal ganglia volume and cognitive in older adults. Neuroscience. 281:147-63.

8 Liu-Ambrose T, et al. 2012. Resistance training and functional plasticity of the aging brain: A 12-month randomized controlled trial. Neurobiol Aging. 33(8):1690-8.

9 Kattenstroth J, et al. 2013. Six months of dance intervention enhances postural, sensorimotor, and cognitive performance in elderly without affecting cardio-respiratory functions. Front Aging Neurosci. 5:5.

Top 8 Quick Fix Memory Tricks

Ho-Ho-No…. Can’t remember what’s on your holiday shopping list? You’re not alone, even Santa has to check his list twice!

But, if you are having trouble remembering ingredients from the festive cookie recipe you just read, you may be dealing with short-term memory loss.

What is short-term memory loss?

You can think of short-term memory, also called working memory, as your brain’s version of a sticky note. It helps you remember that witty comment you want to make when your boss is done talking at the company holiday party; it helps you temporarily memorize Karen’s dream gift until you have a chance to jot it down. This kind of information disappears quickly unless you make a point to remember it.

Short term memory loss symptoms range based on the severity of your forgetfulness. Here are some memory loss signs that are considered “mild”:

  • Misplacing common objects. Keys, where are you?!
  • Not being able to come up with the right word to say, but it’s on the tip of your tongue.
  • Walking into a room and not remembering why. (The easiest way to get lost in the pantry.)

Experiencing any of these symptoms? Don’t jump to the worst case scenario just yet. While problems with short term memory can be the first sign of Alzheimer’s, this may not be the case. More likely, an unhealthy modern lifestyle is to blame. However, if you are experiencing more severe symptoms of memory loss, it may be time to talk to your doctor.

When it comes to short-term memory problems, all is not lost. Some simple lifestyle changes may be all your brain needs to get back on track. Fear not – we aren’t suggesting any extreme changes (nearly impossible during the holiday season!). Instead, try focusing on two of the biggest culprits that specifically affect short-term memory: Stress and lack of sleep.

Overcoming short-term memory loss


High stress levels is one of your brain’s worst enemies. Chronic stress can literally shrink your brain, kill brain cells, and alter your neural network connections. This leads to short-term memory loss, which becomes especially pronounced as we age1.

Want to minimize stress in your life? It’s easier than you might think, because stress mostly comes from your thoughts about stressful events, not the events themselves. Mind-body relaxation, physical exercise, and clean eating can help you keep stress at bay. Check out our blog post on chronic stress for more details!

Lack of Sleep

Your brain is hard at work while you sleep, busy cleaning out debris2, making repairs, and consolidating memories3. Sleep deprivation sharply decreases the amount of information that can be held in short-term memory. In contrast, research shows that a rested and resilient brain performs better and is better able to regulate emotions and think creatively.

An easy way to give your brain a short-term memory boost? Get a good night’s sleep! And if having enough time to sleep is a challenge for you, try a nap. Taking a 20-minute snooze is a power boost for your brain, just like plugging in your phone battery. Hence, Google nap pods.

Quick fix memory tricks

In need of a quick fix? Try these memory tips to help you retain new information and get through the holiday season – without checking your list twice.

  1. Do one thing at a time. Believe it or not, the brain is literally incapable of multi-tasking. Instead, it switches rapidly between tasks. Giving your brain only one thing to focus on will help you remember that gift list.
  2. Say it out loud. If you are worried about remembering an important name, fact, or number for later, try saying it out loud. And good news – it doesn’t even matter if you vocalize the word, it only has to be mouthed4.
  3. Be mindful. The act of mindfulness is being purposefully conscious of something. To master fully, it takes dedication. But for a quick short-term memory trick, try concentrating on what you are doing now. You can worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
  4. Avoid distractions. Short-term memory is a fragile thing and an intention can be easily lost if you give your brain the opportunity to be distracted. If a full trash bin distracts you on your way to the pantry, you’re more likely to forget why you’re in there. Keep your eye on the prize!
  5. Chunk the information. “Chunking” is grouping information together into smaller, more memorable bits. This is the reason why phone numbers are written with dashes!
  6. Write it down. Writing something by hand takes concentration, so this is a great way to make your brain maintain focus on one thing, and one thing only. But don’t take a shortcut with typing – the pen is mightier than the keyboard when it comes to boosting short-term memory5.
  7. Take a walk. Refresh your brain with a quick exercise break. Physical activity does wonders, and you don’t have to run a marathon to see a difference. Even a quick stroll in the park can help.
  8. Drink some coffee (but don’t overdo it!). A shot of caffeine can help boost your short-term memory and reaction time. And, research suggests that a cup of coffee could even help women ward off dementia6. Peppermint mocha lovers rejoice!


1 Repeated stress causes cognitive impairment by supressing glutamate receptor expression and function in prefrontal cortex. Yuen, E Y, et al. 5, 2012, Neuron, Vol. 73, pp. 962-977.

2 Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Xie, L, et al. 6156, 2013, Science, Vol. 342, pp. 373-377.

3 Beta-amyloid disrupts human NREM slow waves and related hippocampus-dependent memory consolidation. Mander, B A, et al. 7, 2105, Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 18, pp. 1051-1060.

4 The production effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. MacLeod, C M, et al. 3, 2010, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 36, pp. 671-685.

5 The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Mueller, P A and Oppenheimer, D M. 6, 2014, Phychological Science, Vol. 25, pp. 1159-1168.

6 Relationships Between Caffeine Intake and Risk for Probable Dementia or Global Cognitive Impairment: The Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. Driscoll, I, et al. 2016, The Journals of Gerontology.

Brain training: Bogus or brilliant? Well, it depends…

We have all seen the advertisements: train your brain for better memory, learning, and power! Cognitive training is one of the hottest new trends in self-improvement. And, if you have been misplacing keys or regularly missing appointments, it may be tempting to sign up for these “brain games”. The hope that after a few weeks of puzzles your brain will be churning out names, dates, and cell phone numbers like you are 17 again is indeed a tempting lure.

The question is: Does brain training really work? As the number of cognitive training interventions grow, researchers have come to understand that there are in fact approaches that do work, while others do not1. Thus, not all brain training is created equally. Before you invest your time and money in a brain bootcamp program, it is important to identify a cognitive training strategy that is the best fit for you.

Here are 2 points to consider:

1. What goals do you hope to achieve from brain training?
There is no right or wrong reason for wanting to enhance our brain function – everyone has room for improvement! But, the specific goals you have set for yourself might be better achieved through certain types of cognitive training compared to others.
Dust off the cobwebs
Perhaps you are striving to break the TV binge-watching habit and are looking for fun and engaging ways to mentally get off the couch. If this is the case, brain games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, quizzes, and word problems might be the way to go. These are not truly “brain training”, but instead are “brain games”. They can help you dust off any mental cobwebs, but will not create a global improvement in brain function.
Proactive prevention
Or, you might be seeking out cognitive training tools to improve your working or short-term memory. This is no surprise – as we live longer, we are faced with the need to fend off cognitive decline for as long as possible. Research tells us that the best way to prevent symptoms of aging, neurodegeneration, or cognitive decline is to improve brain performance in a sustained manner2. Many brain training programs boast exercises “proven” to boost brain benefits. But, if these exercises are merely proven to improve your performance on a specific task type, they will not generalize into real-life situations. These exercises often fall into the “brain games” category, discussed above, and are not true brain training paradigms. Read carefully about these cognitive training programs and ensure that scientific evidence shows a generalization of brain benefits.
Doctor recommended
Alternatively, perhaps your doctor suggested you consider a cognitive training program to help treat a disease. In these cases, brain training is “prescribed” by your doctor. Biofeedback, neurofeedback, and brain stimulation (in the form of tDCS – transcranial direct current stimulation3) are increasing in popularity as approaches to brain training. They are inexpensive and safe techniques that have been increasingly shown to enhance or normalize brain functions. In fact, a growing number of general practice physicians are adding medical treatments and resources such as these for patients who wish to improve cognitive function. Of course, how you use these techniques will affect the outcome of training. Working closely with your doctor can help ensure that your brain will get the individualized training it needs.

2. Are you willing to commit to brain training?
Brain training to improve cognitive function in a sustained manner is more than just mental activity, it is mental exercise. And like physical exercise, mental exercise should train as many “muscles” as possible. This means incorporating novelty, variety, and challenge into your training paradigm and cross-training a variety of intelligence capacities, like emotional, executive, and perceptual skills4.
Just as you wouldn’t expect to derive lifelong benefits from running a marathon tomorrow and then not exercising ever again, you should not expect lifelong benefits from a one-time brain training activity. True cognitive training programs are no quick fix for a healthier brain. For the desired cognitive boost, an effective training program should be individualized, adapt to performance, require effortful attention, increase in difficulty, and be performed systematically.

It will take effort, but don’t shy away from the challenge! Pick the best type of brain training to accomplish your goals, and stick with it. Your brain will thank you for your hard work.


1 Melby-Lervag, M., Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49 (2): 270-291.

2 Willis, S., Tennstedt, S., Marsiske, M., et al. (2006). Long-term Effects of Cognitive Training on Everyday Functional Outcomes in Older Adults. JAMA, 296 (23): 2805-2814.

3 Gill, J., Shah-Basak, P., & Hamilton, R. (2015). It’s the Thought That Counts: Examining the Task-dependent Effects of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation on Executive Function. Brain Stimulation, 8 (2): 253-259.

4 Kueider, A., Parisi, J., Gross, A., Rebok, G. (2012). Computerized Cognitive Training with Older Adults: A Systematic Review. PLoS ONE 7 (7): e40588.

When stress does more than stress you out

We all deal with stress on a daily basis – that’s part of modern life.

But it’s the kind of stress we deal with that makes a difference.

Acute stress is your body’s reaction to an immediate threat, like meeting a bear on your weekend hike. This is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. Once the threat has dissipated, your levels of stress hormones return to normal and there are no long-lasting effects.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a different story. A recent survey reports that 40% of adult Americas lie awake at night because of stress1. Things like a demanding job, loss of a loved one, or concern about finances can contribute to chronic stress.

Chronic stress increases levels of stress hormones and affects many brain functions, ultimately putting you at risk for many stress-related conditions. In fact, stress-related health complaints contribute to 90% of doctors’ visits2. This is because over time, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can chip away at our physical, mental, and emotional health. Many of the chronic stress symptoms we experience are a direct result of changes in the brain.

Here are three ways stress changes your brain.

  1. Chronic stress can shrink your brain.
    Unrelenting stress can measurably reduce the volume of your brain. This is because cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new cells in the hippocampus3, the part of your brain that stores memories. The hippocampus is important for learning, regulating memory and emotions, and shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over. Additionally, researchers have found that chronic stress can contribute to lost volume in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with personality, cognition, and decision making. So, when chronic stress shrinks your brain, it negatively affects memory, decision making, and control of impulsive behavior3,4.
  1. Stress can kill brain cells.
    Chronic stress can kill brain cells both directly and indirectly. First, ongoing stress can halt the production of new cells in the hippocampus and may affect the speed of communication between existing hippocampal cells. This is because excess cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate5. Even though glutamate in the brain is a good thing – it tells your brain cells when to fire – too much glutamate can lead to molecules called free radicals that attack brain cells6. Free radicals actually punch holes in brain cell walls, causing them to rupture and die.Chronic stress can also indirectly contribute to cell death as a result of bad habits we might engage in while seeking out stress-relieving activities. Things like eating junk food, drinking too much alcohol, or smoking cigarettes to relax all contribute to your free radical load, and can intensify brain cell death.
  1. Chronic stress changes neural networks.
    High-level functions we associate with the brain, such as thinking, computing, and decision-making, result from densely packed nerve cell bodies called “gray matter”. But, gray matter is only half of the brain tissue in our head. “White matter” is comprised of a network of fibers that interconnect various gray matter brain regions. Under chronic stress, these white matter fibers become hardened7. This results in hyper-connected circuits and less efficient communication within the brain.

brain connectivity copyAlthough prolonged chronic stress wreaks havoc on your brain, moderate or “good stress”, like studying hard for an exam or training for a marathon, can build stronger brain circuitry and a more resilient brain. That’s the double-edged sword of neuroplasticity. Your brain changes structure and function throughout your lifespan, so you are either creating a brain that is resilient or very vulnerable to mental disease based on your daily choices and lifestyle.

Changes in the brain that result from chronic stress are not easy to detect without undergoing extensive neurological testing. So, how can you tell if you are experiencing negative effects of chronic stress? It’s all about listening to your body. Side effects of chronic stress can include:

  • Excessive worry and fear
  • Anger, irritability, and frustration
  • Insomnia, nightmares, or disturbing dreams
  • Forgetfulness, mental confusion
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Impatience with self and others
  • Depressed mood

Feel like stress is getting the best of you? Fret not, you can consciously make steps toward a mindset and behavior that will improve your brain health. Minimizing stress and protecting your brain against its negative effects is easier than one might think. Stress comes less from the events in your life and more from your thoughts – your automatic negative reaction that triggers the release of cortisol – about these events. Mind-body relaxation techniques like meditation, biofeedback and yoga can help alleviate stress8. You can increase levels of brain-boosting molecules by getting daily physical exercise, even walking is excellent! And, you can keep free radical damage at bay by eating antioxidant-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate, and green tea.

Stress can have a powerful influence on your brain. Be proactive and take control of your stress before it takes control of you!

1American Psychological Association (2016). Stress in America: The impact of discrimination. Stress in America™ Survey.2Salleh, MR (2008). Life Event, Stress and Illness. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences:MJMS, 15(4), 9–18.

3Sapolsky RM, et al (1993). Stress, the aging brain, and the mechanisms of neuron death. New England Journal of Medicine, 329:1049.

4Yuen EY, et al (2011). Repeated Stress Causes Cognitive Impairment by Suppressing Glutamate Receptor Expression and Function in Prefrontal Cortex. Neuron 73(5):962-977.

5Bremner JD, et al (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461.

6Alekseenko AV, et al (2009). Glutamate induces formation of free radicals in rat brain synaptosomes. Biophysics, 54: 617.

7Chetty S, et al (2014). Stress and glucocorticoids promote oligodendrogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Molecular Psychiatry, 19:1275-83.

8Epel E. et al (2009). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172:34–53

Untangling Alzheimer’s: Simple lifestyle changes may prevent cognitive decline

Majid Fotuhi built his First brain out of wood and foam. It was the best way, he thought, to help his fellow students at Harvard grasp how complex and beautiful the organ is. Fotuhi hired a pair of art-school students for the summer of 1993, and millimeters at a time, they sketched a dead human’s brain that Fotuhi schlepped back and forth between the neuroanatomy lab and the art studio across campus.