In 2017 I was told that my MS had progressed to Secondary-Progressive (SPMS). I’ve had MS for over 35 years, this is the first time I can recall having brain fog, short-term memory problems, processing new information had greatly slowed, then trying to remember what I learned was another issue. I’ve learned there are several modalities that can help with these problems.
I used to be an executive assistant for the VP of HR for a major healthcare network. I thrived in this type of environment – multi-tasking, crazy busy from the time I walked in to work to the time I left for the day, with constant interruptions throughout the day. One day I remembered walking into work like any other day, sat down at my desk and began working. At some point during the day I went to do a task I do everyday and couldn’t remember how to do it. I found myself forgetting what my boss had told me 10 minutes prior. She also had me put together a chart and wasn’t familiar with the program. Trying to self-learn normally wouldn’t be a problem, but found I was having great difficulty and called over a fellow team-mate to help out. As months went on, these symptoms were becoming more and more of a problem, to the point where my job was being threatened.
Chronic fatigue was another huge issue that was exacerbating the brain fog and cognitive decline. I soon learned that this attention loss is called “cognitive deficit.” Other cognitive (thinking) deficits include difficulty learning new information and remembering it, slowed processing of information and problems with planning and organization.
According to the International Multiple Sclerosis Cognition Society, cognitive deficits affect up to 65 percent of people living with MS. As with other symptoms of MS, cognitive deficits can range from very mild to severe. Ongoing screening from your Neurologist for cognitive changes can help identify problems and the strategies to manage them at home and at work.
During this time I was referred to a speech therapist who showed me techniques to help with my memory and thinking problems:
To Stay Focused, Avoid Multi-tasking
In MS, divided attention tasks, or paying attention to more than one thing at a time, are frequently affected. To improve your ability to focus on any one task, don’t multi-task!
For example: when you go into the kitchen to boil water, stay in the kitchen until everything is finished and turned off or if that is not possible, set a timer to remind yourself to check on things.
When you’re driving, keep the radio off and set your GPS for every trip to remind you where you’re going or how to get there. Keeping things simple really helps.
Even when you’re not trying to do two or more things at once, noises and activities around you can distract you from your task, and distraction is an attention-killer.
When you need to concentrate on something, consider wearing earplugs to cut out background noise. If possible, take “mind breaks” in a dark, quiet environment when you need to.
Write It Down and Technology for Memory Rescue
I have found that my memory is nothing like it used to be…in fact it’s not good, but I’m very organized. I keep a journal/notebook in the living room and my bedroom for ideas that pop in my head and I use post-it notes in my bathroom and put them on my mirror. Each of these help for different parts of my life.
I also got the Android Smartphone – Galaxy Note 9 because of the stylus and writing capabilities, so when I’m out and about or on the phone I can take quick notes. I’m also a huge Amazon fan, and use Alexa app for grocery shopping list. When I have something to add to the list, I ask Alexa to add it then and there so I don’t forget.
If I have many tasks to get done, I write down each task. Then after each are completed, I cross them off. Otherwise I’ll forget what I’ve already done.
Other Tips for Managing Cognitive Symptoms
There are a number of self-help modalities that can help with other mental tasks, if you’re having trouble. Many professionals, including Wellness Coaches and Naturopaths recommend:
Train Your Brain – Exercising your cognitive skills is an important part of staying healthy with MS, and there’s evidence, per a study published in July 2018 in the journal Disability and Health Journal, that computer-assisted cognitive training programs may help. Mobile apps dedicated to memory training are excellent ways to strengthen memory, along with playing cross-word puzzles, word-recall games, reading and brain activity games help to keep your brain active and healthy.
Organizing Your Environment – We’re not all natural organizers. But having a place for everything and being consistent in where you put things will make it easier to find what you want.
Paying Attention to Your Mood – Depression, which is one of the most common MS symptoms, can impact your cognition. Communication with your Neurologist and ongoing screenings for depression to identify and address significant mood changes.
Relaxing – The less stressed you are, the better your focus will be. Try meditating, praying, practicing yoga, petting an animal, going for a walk in nature, relaxation exercises/movement to lower your stress levels. Soaking in a bath with essential oils, reading or work in the yard/garden. According to the Mayo Clinic, relaxation techniques can reduce fatigue and improve concentration and mood.
Sleep – getting quality sleep protects your energy levels. Fatigue brings on cognitive problems, so save your hard thinking for more rested times. Take frequent breaks from mental tasks. How to get quality sleep – think about what you do 1-2 hours before bed time. Most of us are watching TV, playing on our phones or falling asleep on the couch, which all play a role in the quality of sleep we get. Here are some techniques you can do to help your body get in a restful state and ready for sleep.
- Warm bath with relaxing essential oils: such as lavender, vanilla, chamomile, bergamot orange, rose, neroli. Or even soaking in Epsom salts helps detox the body of toxins and produces a more calm nervous system.
- Herbal teas such as: peppermint, chamomile, lemon balm, passion flower, green, valerian, passionflower help aid in getting a good night’s sleep by calming down the nervous system as well.
- Journaling – may help you sleep longer and better, according to research. Stressing or worrying at bedtime can stop your body from winding down. Positive journaling can redirect your mind and re-wires your brain. Also writing down what you are grateful for puts your body in a happy state and allows your brain to calm down. Journaling regularly can become a soothing part of your bedtime routine and could help you fall asleep more easily.
- Meditation/Yoga – Meditation for sleep is a specific, guided experience that offers a natural sleep aid all on its own, allowing us to let go of the day – everything that’s happened and everything that’s been said – so we can rest the mind while simultaneously resting the body.
Yoga is known to relax both the body and the mind. It also improves breathing and reduces stress. This is why yoga promotes restful sleep. Better sleep contributes to a better quality of life.
Here are 11 evidence-based ways to improve your memory naturally.
- Eat Less Sugar – eating too much sugar has been linked to many health issues and chronic diseases, including cognitive decline. Eliminating processed sugars from your diet is instrumental. Research has shown that a sugar-laden diet can lead to poor memory and reduced brain volume, particularly in the area of the brain that stores short-term memory.For example, one study of more than 4,000 people found that those with a higher intake of sugary beverages like soda had lower total brain volumes and poorer memories on average compared to people who consumed less sugar.Cutting back on sugar not only helps your memory but also improves your overall health.
- Try a Fish Oil Supplement – Fish oil is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).These fats are important for overall health and have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation, relieve stress and anxiety and slow mental decline.Many studies have shown that consuming fish and fish oil supplements may improve memory, especially in older people and those living with MS.
Both DHA and EPA are vital to the health and functioning of the brain and also help reduce inflammation in the body, which has been linked to cognitive decline.
- Maintain a Healthy Weight – Maintaining a healthy body weight is essential for well-being and is one of the best ways to keep your body and mind in top condition.Several studies have established obesity as a risk factor for cognitive decline. Interestingly, being obese can actually cause changes to memory-associated genes in the brain, negatively affecting memory.Obesity can also lead to insulin resistance and inflammation, both of which can negatively impact the brain. A study of 50 people between the ages of 18 and 35 found that a higher body mass index was associated with significantly worse performance on memory tests.
- Practice Mindfulness – Mindfulness is a mental state in which you focus on your present situation, maintaining awareness of your surroundings and feelings.Mindfulness is used in meditation, but the two aren’t one and the same. Meditation is a more formal practice, whereas mindfulness is a mental habit you can use in any situation.Studies have shown that mindfulness is effective at lowering stress and improving concentration and memory. One study of 293 psychology students showed that those who underwent mindfulness training had improved recognition-memory performance when recalling objects compared to students who did not receive mindfulness training.
Incorporate mindfulness techniques into your daily routine by paying more attention to your present situation, concentrating on your breathing and gently resetting your attention when your mind wanders.
- Drink Less Alcohol – Consuming too many alcoholic beverages can be detrimental to your health in many ways and can negatively impact your memory.Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that raises your blood alcohol levels to 0.08 grams per ml or above. Studies have shown it alters the brain and results in memory deficits.The bottom line is, alcohol exhibits neurotoxic effects on the brain. Repeated episodes of binge drinking can damage the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a vital role in memory.
- Cutting Down on Refined Carbs – consuming large amounts of refined carbohydrates like cakes, cereal, cookies, white rice and white bread may be damaging to your memory.These foods have a high glycemic index, meaning the body digests these carbohydrates quickly, leading to a spike in blood sugar levels. Studies have shown that the Western diet, which is high in refined carbohydrates, is associated with dementia, cognitive decline and reduced cognitive function.Switching to a clean, organic, whole-foods, plant-based eating plan, especially for those living with MS cutting out gluten, processed sugars, dairy and dairy products is not only much better for your overall health and wellness, but will also significantly improve fatigue, BMI and metabolic biomarkers, studies show.
- Get Your Vitamin D Levels Tested – Vitamin D is an important nutrient that plays many vital roles in the body. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to a host of health issues, including reduction in cognitive function.A study that followed 318 older adults for five years found that those who had blood levels of vitamin D less than 20 nanograms per ml lost their memory and other cognitive abilities faster than those with normal vitamin D levels.Low levels of vitamin D have also been linked to a greater risk of developing dementia.
Vitamin D deficiency is very common, especially in colder climates and in those with darker skin. Speak with your doctor about getting a blood test to find out if you need a vitamin D supplement.
- Exercise More – Exercise is important for overall physical and mental health. Research has established that it’s beneficial for the brain and may help improve memory in people of all ages, from children to older adults.Many studies have shown exercise may increase the secretion of neuroprotective proteins and improve the growth and development of neurons, leading to improved brain health.
- Choose Anti-Inflammatory Foods – Consuming a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods may help improve your memory.Antioxidants help lower inflammation in the body by reducing oxidative stress caused by free radicals. You can consume antioxidants in foods like fruits, vegetables and teas.
A recent review of nine studies with more than 31,000 people found that those who ate more fruits and vegetables had lower risks of cognitive decline and dementia compared to those who consumed less of these nutritious foods.
Berries are particularly high in antioxidants like flavonoids and anthocyanins. Eating them may be an excellent way to prevent memory loss.
In summary, anti-inflammatory foods are great for your brain, especially berries and other foods that are high in antioxidants. To incorporate more anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, you can’t go wrong by consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables. Eat the rainbow!
- Consider Curcumin – Curcumin is a compound found in high concentrations in turmeric root. It’s one of the category of compounds called polyphenols. It is a potent antioxidant and exerts powerful anti-inflammatory effects on the body.Multiple animal studies have found that curcumin reduces oxidative damage and inflammation in the brain and also lowers the quantity of amyloid plaques. These accumulate on neurons and cause cell and tissue death, leading to memory loss.
Though more human studies are needed on the effects of curcumin on memory, animal studies suggest it may be effective at boosting memory and preventing cognitive decline.
- Add Some Cocoa to Your Diet – Cocoa is not only delicious but also nutritious, providing a powerful dose of antioxidants called flavonoids. Research suggests flavonoids are particularly beneficial to the brain.They may help stimulate the growth of blood vessels and neurons and increase blood flow in parts of the brain involved with memory.
A study of 30 healthy people found that those who consumed dark chocolate containing 720 mg of cocoa flavonoids demonstrated better memory compared to those who consumed white chocolate without cocoa flavonoids.
To get the most benefit of chocolate, choose dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% cacao or higher. That will help ensure it contains larger amounts of antioxidants like flavonoids.
In The End
There are many fun, simple and even delicious ways to improve your memory.
Exercising your mind and body, enjoying a quality piece of chocolate and reducing the amount of sugar in your diet are all excellent techniques.
Try adding a few of these science-backed tips to your daily routine to boost your brain health and keep your memory in top condition.
About the Author: Jen Martin is a Master Certified Holistic Wellness Coach specializing in empowering women with MS to combat fatigue, increase energy levels and improve overall health, so that they can focus on what’s important and living their life to the fullest with vitality and abundance!