TUN sits down with Jill Kubala, a registered dietician and wellness expert, to discuss steps you can take to improve memory.
TUN: Jill, thanks so much for joining us.
KUBALA: Of course! Thanks for having me.
Research supports that one of the best ways to improve and preserve your memory is by having a healthy diet. What should that diet look like?
I want to start by saying, there is no one-size-fits-all diet that works for everyone. Your dietary need depends on many factors, like your activity levels, your age, your blood sugar regulation, your gender and things like that. So, what works for me isn’t going to work for you.
But, in general, a healthy diet will consist of nutrient-dense whole foods, especially vegetables and fruits. A diet that is rich in produce has been linked to not only improved memory and decreased chances of cognitive decline but also lower risk of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and things like that.
For everyone, it is beneficial to have a diet that is very high in whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, protein and fat sources like eggs, nuts and seeds and fiber-rich foods like beans.
Also, for memory issues, or just to preserve your cognitive health in general, anti-inflammatory foods are important. Those include fruits and vegetables, of course. Ginger, garlic, turmeric and cocoa are very high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Green tea is also good.
So, on top of having a very healthy diet in general, you can also pepper in some of the anti-inflammatory additions to really boost your cognitive health.
Are there any specific foods or drinks that people should avoid?
Yes. And, this goes along with health outcomes in general. It is not just to improve your memory and cognitive health. Cutting out these foods and reducing your intake of these foods will help overall health and reduce your chances of developing a chronic disease down the road. We are talking about people in their late teens and early 20s, but you also want to think about your future health as well. It is about disease prevention.
These are the foods to avoid for overall health, but especially to preserve your memory and improve cognitive performance. Added sugars are huge, especially added sugars in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and those sweetened smoothies that people love. Energy drinks are big. A lot of kids in college tend to drink a lot of caffeinated, sugary energy drinks. These beverages have been linked to significant memory issues, inflammation and cognitive decline later in life.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are big. But, also added sugar, in general, can really affect your brain health and cognitive functions. So, limit added sugars wherever you can.
You don’t have to cut them out completely. Everyone enjoys having dessert once in a while, especially when you’re stressed out in college. Limiting them as much as possible is what’s important.
Highly processed foods, including sugary breakfast cereals, fast food and highly processed packaged food are best to avoid when possible.
There are many supplements out there that promise better memory and overall brain health. Do any of these supplements work? Should people who want to improve their memories be supplementing their diets at all?
Supplements are tricky. They can be very helpful. I use supplements all the time in my private practice. Specific supplements can be very helpful, especially if you’re deficient or running a little low in a certain vitamin or mineral.
For example, B12, vitamin D and magnesium. If you have low levels of those nutrients, it very well might impact your ability to concentrate and stay on task. Supplementing with those is safe. They are not associated with a lot of side effects at all. Omega 3 is another that has a lot of research to support its use improving brain health in general.
But then, you have herbal supplements and a lot of multi-nutrient supplements that are all over the internet and promising to drastically improve memory within a week. Stay away from those, especially multi-herb supplements that have proprietary blends. These supplements often list a ton of different herbs, vitamins and minerals in the ingredient label, but they don’t tell you how much of each is in the supplement.
So, you could be taking a very small amount that is not going to make a difference in terms of your overall health or cognitive health. And, you could be spending $40-$50 on the supplement. It is really not effective because, in the literature, a lot of these herbs, like ashwagandha and ginseng, may improve memory when used in specific doses. Usually, the appropriate doses are a little bit higher than the ones that you’ll find in these proprietary blends of supplements.
So, you really have to be careful when you’re picking and choosing supplements. A lot of them are a waste of money. So, it is best to just work with a healthcare provider, if you really have questions about supplementation for your general health or to improve memory. Most of them aren’t going to be the best choice, financially or health-wise.
Outside of diet, how else can individuals improve their memory and brain health?
When I think about college students, I think about stress and lack of sleep. So, stress is huge. Learning to manage your stress when you’re younger is so important. I have a lot of clients in their 50s and 60s who never learned how to manage their stress. They don’t have a lot of activities that are outlets for them.
So, I really suggest learning how to control stress. Learn what activities you can do to get out of your head and let yourself relax a little bit, especially if you’re feeling stressed. Managing stress is very important for mental health, cognitive performance and overall health.
Getting enough sleep is very important. I know that a lot of students burn the candle at both ends and don’t get enough sleep. You can’t make up for sleep. If you’re sleeping five hours five days a week, you can’t make it up by sleeping 10 hours on Saturday and Sunday. So, getting enough consistent sleep — at least seven hours — is important.
Also, meditation is important. Spending time outside is very helpful for the majority of my clients. When they take a walk outside or go hiking, everyone feels a little bit lighter and less stressed. I really suggest spending some time outside. It doesn’t have to be in a forest. It can be just getting in the sunshine or going for a walk around campus. Let yourself relax a little bit. Those are all very important for mental health and cognitive health.
How long will it take someone who is practicing the things that you’ve mentioned to see results? Is it a gradual process, or will people actually be able to notice a stark change?
That’s going to depend on the severity of your issues. If you’re having significant anxiety and real issues with memory, you should definitely reach out to your healthcare provider. A lot of health conditions can lead to anxiety symptoms and poor memory. For example, hypothyroidism, which is very common in females, can really affect your memory.
So, if you have noticed that your diet is fine, you’re getting enough sleep, you’re managing your stress and you’re still experiencing these issues, absolutely go to your doctor and get checked out.
For someone who has nutrient deficiencies or a medical condition, it is going to take longer to see those results. For someone who is just not getting enough sleep and not managing their stress well, a few days of getting proper sleep and managing stress can significantly improve alertness, anxiety issues and memory. It depends on what is causing the issues in the first place.
Thanks, Jill, for joining us today.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.