How Sugar, Stress and Sleeplessness Are Hurting Your Memory

Memory is a precious commodity, isn’t it?

Losing the ability to remember places, names and numbers is a frustrating process. With more and more scientific light being shed on Alzheimer’s and other memory-related diseases, we’ve become aware of how quickly memory can fade.

Most of us turn to Google searches and doctor’s appointments to help find a way to combat memory loss. Supplement companies love to prey on people who want a memory boost – you can read about their tactics and claims in an article we wrote titled, “The Truth About Memory Supplements: What to Look for and How to Buy One.

Medical professionals are working hard to come up with ways to help your memory loss, but do you know what we often miss in all this? The habits we take part in that hurt our memory. 

While most people search for a cure to their memory loss, few put in the time to discover the daily habits that could be damaging their memory. And we don’t blame them. With all the supposed cures out there, it’s hard to say no to treatment in favor of prevention.

“Few put in the time to discover the daily habits that could be damaging their memory.”

But that’s exactly what we want to dig into today. We’re going to spend a few minutes looking at how sugar, stress and sleep deprivation affect your brain’s ability to recall everything from words and places to people, dates and times.

Sugar is Sweet to the Taste, But A Bitter Pill for Your Memory

Before we jump into this section, we want to point out that “sugar” is a general term that, in the food world, includes all different sorts of ingredients. While not all of them are the white stuff we’re used to seeing, they add a sweet kick to your food; molasses and cane sugar are two examples.

On a molecular level, “sugar” as we know it is something called sucrose, which is made up of two components: glucose and fructose. This is important because, as we’ll show you in a few seconds, fructose has the potential to harm your memory. 

In 2012, a team of researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a visiting researcher from India tackled the effects of fructose on the brain.

To understand how fructose affects the brain, they fed rats their normal meals but supplemented some of their diets with a solution of water and fructose.

Before the study began, doctors trained the rats how to make it through a maze they’d set up in their labs. Eventually, all the rats remembered how to get through the maze.

Once the study kicked in, doctors noticed that the rats who were taking the fructose drink had a harder time remembering how to get through the maze as compared to rats who weren’t drinking fructose.

In a press release from the university in 2012, UCLA professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla pointed out that what we eat affects how we think. 

“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information,” Gomez-Pinilla said in the release.

“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information.”

Now, how does all this relate to you, the average American who likes a little sugar here and there? Well, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2014 we ate about 29 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per person. That’s a lot of fructose, right?

But the UCLA study about fructose’s effect on the brain is just a single study. For credibility’s sake, it’s important to find other studies that confirm these findings.

We did some digging and found an Oregon State University study this past year that seems to corroborate what UCLA’s doctors found. 

They devoted their research to studying the effect of high-fat and high-sugar diets on the brains of mice. The results of the study showed a strong link between a high-sugar diet, a change in gut-bacteria levels and impaired ability to build long- and short-term memory in young mice. 

Because these studies were done on mice, it’s hard for us to say conclusively that high sugar consumption can hamper a human’s memory, but we do believe the findings – and the opinions of the doctors who observed them – point to the very real possibility that you could be harming your memory because of your sweet tooth. 

But it’s not just food that can alter our ability to recall things. Stress has been proven to inflict damage on our memory. 

It’s Easy to Forget When You’re Stressed Out

You’ve probably been in that situation where you are super stressed out and you’ve got a million things to do, right? Have you noticed how it’s really hard to keep track of things and remember times, dates and appointments? There’s a reason for that. 

When you start to get stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. This chemical prepares your body to take on the stressful situation you face.

For example, if you come home one night, open your front door and then see a burglar in your living room, your body experiences “fight-or-flight,” which is like a survival instinct. Cortisol starts pumping through your blood and you either charge the burglar and wrestle him to the ground, scream at the top of your lungs, or run the other way.

In all three instances, you experience a physical release for the stress. But what doctors are finding more and more is that our stress levels are so consistent and, in some cases, so high that our bodies are producing cortisol without releasing any stress.

And when cortisol builds up in our bodies, it affects the function of the hippocampus, our brain’s memory center. 

In 2014, a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that long-term stress (and cortisol, in particular) alters important neuron ratios in your hippocampus as well as the protective cover around your nerves. In other words, habitual stressing out can mess up the way your memory center’s nerves communicate with each other. 

And the effects go beyond just memory impairment: anxiety, mood disorders and learning difficulties show up, too. 

Another team of researchers, this time from Arizona State University, also found that stress can affect the hippocampus. They observed that rats who underwent chronic stress had a harder time finding their way through mazes, known as spatial working memory.

For humans, this is similar to finding your way around a new city. A healthy “working” memory will be able to notice things about your surroundings, store the information and then help you make decisions about where to go based on that information.

Your working memory helps you solve complicated situations like being lost or working through a math problem.

When you get stressed out, your ability to process, store and utilize information in order to solve problems starts to deteriorate. 

There’s another side effect of stress – sleeplessness. And when you don’t sleep, your memory pays the price. 

Losing Sleep Means Losing the Ability to Solidify Memories

Think of your brain’s memory-making like a factory that makes new cars. Engineers learn new methods of manufacturing (your brain acquiring new information) and draft up a car design, the factory makes the pieces and puts them together (consolidating your memories) and they’re shipped to a dealership where they’re stored in a lot until someone buys them (recalling your memories). 

If one of those parts is missing or inefficient, the other two pay the price. 

When you consistently deprive yourself of sleep, your brain’s ability to consolidate and store what it learns takes a serious hit. Why? Because consolidation takes place while you sleep, whereas acquisition and recall take place while you’re awake. 

So think of it like this: a car company has great engineers who design a fantastic car and, at the consumer end of things, amazing salesmen who know exactly where every car is on the lot. But something is up at the factory, because cars are showing up to the dealership in pieces. They were never put together.

All that new information and those ideas the engineers acquired is wasted. All those great salesmen are now useless. 

It sounds pretty absurd, right? But that’s exactly what happens when you don’t sleep. Your brain’s ability to consolidate information and organize it gets weaker. This explains why, when you’re exhausted from lack of sleep, it’s harder for you to remember things you recently learned.

But that’s not all. A team of scientists from Finland found that sleep deprivation also impairs your long-term memory, as well as your ability to solve mazes and assess your ability to answer test questions. 

Our Closing Thoughts About the Habits that Affect Your Memory

The difficult thing about a topic like this is that the habits mentioned here are part of most Americans’ everyday life.

As we talked about earlier, we consume, on average, at least 29 pounds of fructose-based sweeteners every year. 

The American Psychological Association reported in 2014 that the average level of stress in America, on a scale of 1-10 is a 5. A 2014 NPR report found that nearly half of respondents said they experienced a major stressful event in the past year. 

As for sleep, the Centers for Disease Control says that between the years 2005 and 2008, 38.8 million people reported that they had a hard time remembering things as a result of sleep difficulties. 

Based on all this information, we believe that most Americans are causing some pretty noticeable damage to their memory. But like we said, reversing these habits is really tough because stress, sugar and sleeplessness have become a part of our culture. 

Here’s the amazing thing, though: we believe it doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways you can cut back on sugar, reduce stress levels and increase the amount of sleep you get. 

Four Steps to Boosting Your Memory

1. Avoid Supplements

Our first recommendation, based on dozens of articles we’ve written, is to avoid supplement companies who say they’ve got pills that can boost your memory and energy. While very few of these companies, in our opinion, back up these claims, the more important issue is that taking pills or energy drinks doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: too much sugar, lots of stress and not enough sleep. 

If you want to learn more about why we believe memory supplements aren’t as helpful as you think, read our guide to buying them. You’ll learn the common claims, the science behind the ingredients and what to look for when you shop for them.

2. Cut Back on How Much Sugar You Consume

Tackling your sugar addiction will be harder than you think, but applying a few basic principles to your food choices can be a huge help. The American Heart Association has a great page on how to do this. Some of their advice? Cut out sugary soda and try sugar free options, cut in half the amount of sugar you use in your favorite recipes and add some fruit to your diet. 

Related: Sugar Versus Artificial Sweeteners: What’s Better for You?

3. Find Natural Ways to Decrease Stress

As for stress, take a few minutes and read our article, “6 Ways to Naturally Improve Your Focus, Energy, Productivity and Decrease Stress”. It will walk you through six steps that address time management, mindset diet and more.

Related: The Newest Stress Escape Is Adult Coloring

4. Make Sleep a Priority

The final memory-harming habit is sleep deprivation. In 2015 we wrote an article about sleep. In it, we talk about how controlling your home’s temperature, setting a sleep routine, shutting off those electronic devices and limiting daytime naps can give you those sweet hours of sleep you’ve been wanting. 

We know our research about habits that harm your memory got pretty discouraging at points, but remember, there’s a good chance you can reverse the damage by cutting back on sugar, reducing stress levels and getting a good night’s rest.

Related: 9 Simple Ways to Improve Your Sleep


J.R. Duren

J.R. is an award winning journalist who uncovers the hard truths about personal finance, health and fitness through in-depth research and interviews with experts.


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