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How Stress Shrinks Memory

How Stress Shrinks Memory

Stress and Memory Loss

Did you know that stress shrinks the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory? In this post, you'll learn how stress causes memory loss and what to  do about it. 

Short Term Memory Happens in the Hippocampus

Short-term memory starts with a part of the brain called the hippocampus. That’s Greek for seahorse, due to the resemblance in shape. The hippocampus sits at the both sides of the brain in the temporal lobes.

Information goes into the brain at 10,000 neural signals per second, a volume that would overload the brain. The hippocampus sorts out what incoming information should be saved and what should be discarded. The hippocampus is the brain’s “Save Button.”

How stress damages the brain | Essential oils for brain function

The formation of long-term memory into short-term memory happens in the hippocampus. Think of the hippocampus as the staging area that holds noteworthy information. Overtime, this information is consolidated into long-term memory.

How does the hippocampus know what information to put into long-term storage? It needs these qualities: focus, intention, intensity, and repetition of information. If there is not focus or review the days following information intake, the information may be lost.

We cannot learn optimally without a healthy hippocampus. Success in all areas of life depends on the hippocampus prioritizing and consolidating new information.

Signs of damage to the hippocampus

What happens when the hippocampus degenerates? Short-term memories erode like something written in sand, and our capacity for learning is lost.

Forgetting where you put common items (your keys, glasses, wallet), an inability to remember what you just read, and weak navigation skills are all signs of hippocampus degeneration.

In our culture, we casually diminish these symptoms. “It’s just aging,” some say, or “I have mom brain,” or “I just have a lot on my plate right now.”

But common forgetfulness means your brain is begging for help. It also indicates the beginning of pre-dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In both conditions, the first part of the brain to suffer is the hippocampus.

And this brain damage starts with stress.

Stress damages a part of the brain called the hippocampus

In addition to short-term memory, the hippocampus serves another important function. It regulates the HPA Axis from producing too much cortisol, a primary stress hormone.

1. Stress triggers the adrenal glands

Our adrenal glands are our first response to stress. When our brain perceives stress in the environment, be it a common anxiety or an actual physical threat, the brain activates the adrenal glands.

The brain sends this message through the HPA Axis. First, the hypothalamus sends a hormonal message to the pituitary. The Pituitary translates the message between hypothalamus and adrenals.

It sends it’s own hormonal message to the adrenal glands which says, “Make cortisol!”.

2. The adrenal glands produce and release cortisol

The adrenal glands get the message and release their hormone cortisol. Cortisol’s main job is to stimulate a process whereby protein, taken from our body’s tissues, is transformed into glucose. This sugar is the fuel needed to mobilize into fight or flight.

3. The hippocampus is the Cortisol Thermostat

Here’s where the hippocampus comes in.

The hippocampus is densely filled with cortisol receptor sites, which means it is continuously monitoring levels of cortisol. It’s the Cortisol Thermostat.

When the stress has been resolved, and there has been a sufficient amount of cortisol produced, the hippocampus is supposed regulate cortisol. It tells the hypothalamus “Shhh, everything’s okay, you don’t need to tell the adrenals to produce any more cortisol.”

How stress damages the brain | Essential oils for brain function

Too much stress damages the hippocampus and short-term memory

When stress becomes chronic, which has become our normal, the adrenals constantly produce cortisol. This is called hyper adrenal function, and it is more common than the more popularized adrenal fatigue. (If hyper adrenal patterns persist, the adrenals eventually become exhausted.)

As a result of this hyper adrenal response, the hippocampus is continually exposed to cortisol.

Remember how the hippocampus is filled with cortisol receptor sites? Repetitive and excessive cortisol exposure damages the sensitive hippocampus cells.

Too much cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus. The hippocampus literally shrinks in size. This has been shown in studies, where the health of the hippocampus is researched in relationship to stress.

With chronic stress, the hippocampus becomes desensitized, and cannot keep up with its short-term memory function.

Support Memory and The Hippocampus with Cortisol Brakes

Cortisol Brakes | Essential Oils for Brain Function

I formulated Cortisol Brakes to support hippocampus. A healthy hippocampus regulates cortisol, preventing you from being locked into harmful stress patterns.

Most importantly, a healthy hippocampus allows you to learn new things and experience the ease of memory. A healthy hippocampus prevents the common tragedy of losing your mind to Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Cortisol Brakes is available here.