We all forget things from time to time, usually at the worst times possible. Have you ever been unable to remember where your car keys are just as you’re trying to get out the door? Forgotten the name of a new neighbor and so avoided running into them until you figured it out? Or not bought something you meant to at the grocery store, drawn a blank on that fact you just learned, or forgotten any number of other things ranging from the frivolous to the annoying to more serious?
A certain degree of issues remembering or even a slight increase in memory loss as you age can be completely normal. Although more severe memory loss, especially as you grow older, may be the result of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other related disorders, modest memory issues can be the result of a number of various factors and conditions.
One of those conditions is often stress.
How Stress Affects Your Memory
The way stress impacts our memories is nuanced and related to the way we acquire new information. Essentially, there are three steps to learning new things: acquisition, consolidation, and retrieval. When it comes to all three, stress can be both good and bad.
On the one hand, short, momentary stress and anxiety can distract your attention and make it more difficult to concentrate, leading to imperfect acquisition and a lack of consolidation. Additionally, that same distraction can make it hard to recall things that are committed to memory. This phenomenon is especially common when you are stressed about something unrelated to the information you are learning.
On the other hand, moderate stress connected to the new information can actually have a positive effect on the first two steps. When stressed, your brain releases corticosteroids which trigger the amygdala to tell your hippocampus to consolidate a memory. Basically, this type of stress lets your brain know that the new thing or information in question is worth remembering.
It’s important to note that this positive effect only results from moderate stress when it is directly connected to new information you’re learning.
In addition to short term stress unrelated to new information leading to difficulties concentrating, long term, chronic stress can cause serious problems, even increasing your chances of developing dementia.
Chronic Stress and Memory
If chronic stress goes on for too long, it will have damaging effects on your mental and physical health, including your ability to remember things. Over time stress begins to change your brain’s chemistry and structure, leading to hyperactivity in some areas and atrophy in other areas. It also decreases the levels of neurotransmitters (like serotonin, dopamine, and endocannabinoids) and alters their receptors.
Long term stress also leads to higher levels of cortisol, a hormone released by the body in response to stress. The problem is, according to a study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, increased cortisol levels have been linked to memory problems and even slight brain shrinkage in healthy adults in their late 40s.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, had this to say:
“We’re suggesting that if you have even a small elevation of cortisol, you may end up having some detrimental effects. In other words, maybe we need to revisit our threshold.”
Similarly, Dr. Pierre Fayad, Medical Director of the Nebraska Stroke Center and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, added this:
“Our brains need to be challenged enough to function and be stimulated, but when that challenge is continuous and overwhelming, without a break, it may lead to negative consequences.”
Does CBD Affect Memory Loss?
Because it’s a component of the cannabis plant, many people associate CBD with its cousin cannabinoid, THC. Although some studies have linked THC to memory problems, a recent study conducted by the World Health Organization concluded that CBD has almost zero health risks. Furthermore, there is some evidence indicating that CBD may actually help the brain and improve memory.
CBD was found to promote neurogenesis, thus reducing the damage to cognitive functions caused by age, disease, and trauma. This effect might help people who suffer from degenerative memory disorders. As a result, the potential therapeutic properties of CBD for Alzheimer's disease are currently under intense study.
CBD and Memory: Stress Levels
CBD is thought to help stress through its interaction with the endocannabinoid system, which plays a vital role in our physiology, mood, and general day to day experience and perception. It helps our bodies maintain emotional balance in the same manner as serotonin and dopamine do. For this reason, it is also deeply intertwined with our body’s reaction to stress. Prolonged exposure to chronic stress can cause an endocannabinoid imbalance, which makes it even more difficult to escape from a stressful state.
Without diving too deeply into the brain chemistry, our bodies react to stress by overstimulating and under-stimulating various receptors (particularly our CB1 receptors) in order to alter chemical levels in our brains and nervous systems. This is an attempt by the body to solve the problem and shield us from further pain.
Although these bodily responses are necessary for us to properly deal with stress, periods of prolonged exposure can lead to too much manipulation of our brain’s chemical receptors. During times of chronic stress, the body’s initial overstimulation of CB1 receptors can actually cause it to backpedal and then under-stimulate those same receptors.
This back and forth of stimulation can lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain. In other words, if your body initiates these stress responses for too long it begins to not know what to do and can essentially overreact.
CBD is thought to help chronic stress by preventing the overstimulation of our body’s CB1 receptors and by boosting our body’s production of endocannabinoids. This then reins in the body’s response to stress and helps lead to the proper chemical levels and a balanced emotional state. By possibly reducing acute and chronic stress levels, CBD may make it easier to learn, retain, and recall information.
CBD and Memory: Cortisol
By helping prevent the overstimulation of our body’s CB1 receptors, CBD may temper the body’s response to stress and reduce the the production of cortisol. This then helps lead to the proper chemical levels and a balanced emotional state.
There is mounting evidence that CBD may be able to counteract the effects of cortisol by interfering with its production and secretion. One double-blind study administered 11 “normal” patients with CBD or a placebo to determine its effects on plasma prolactin, growth hormone, and cortisol. Although prolactin and growth hormone levels remained the same in the presence of CBD, cortisol levels dropped significantly.
By reducing cortisol, CBD may help prevent its detrimental effects on our memory.
Could CBD Combat Memory Loss?
As it stands now with the knowledge we currently have, the greatest value that CBD has in preventing memory loss is through the reduction of stress. Although acute stress has the potential to be good or bad for our memories, chronic stress can have serious long term negative effects. The more we can reduce consistent stress levels, the better our memories, brains, and bodies as a whole will be. As we learn more about CBD’s effect on stress, it will have big implications for CBD’s effect on our memories.