your seahorse, memory, and metabolism
Everything we learn, everything we read, everything we do, everything we understand, and everything we experience all count on the hippocampus to function correctly. Our hippocampus is responsible for short and long term memory and spatial recognition. Spatial recognition includes our ability to put things in their proper place, be it geographically, relationally, or emotionally.
The health of our hippocampus (This is the Greek word for seahorse—named for its shape) has a lot to do with our ability to properly handle, relate, and respond to daily stress or stressors. Think about it: It’s one thing to be looking at a bear from across the field or mountain range, it’s another for it to be right in front of our face. Tragically, when our hippocampus is unhealthy, the bear on the other side of the field now seems to be within arms reach, though it’s really not.
Houston, we have a problem
When’s the last time you thought about the health of your hippocampus?
Neglecting the health of our hippocampus is extremely dangerous and often ends in a bout with stress induced alzheimer’s or dementia (no matter your age). Not to mention all the other potential aliments induced via chronic stress, such as heart disease, depression, and an inability to lose weight—just to name a few.
In this previously written post, I compared our endocrine system to the ignition of an automobile. If the ignition goes down, nothing else matters because the car won’t start. Similarly, when our hippocampus becomes unhealthy, everything else suffers due to the specific role the hippocampus plays in regard to memory management and spatial recognition.
The affects of an unhealthy hippocampus is something I have experienced on a few occasions and it’s not fun. Due to an enormous amount of stress, I felt I was losing my mind and couldn’t lose a pound - even after starving myself for a few days. It wasn’t until I learned about stress and what it can do to our mind / affect our memory that I even knew I had a hippocampus. Educated, I began my journey to end the vicious cycle.
the vicious cycle
Because our hippocampus is responsible for memory management, it makes sense that it has a high number of hormone receptors that are very sensitive to stress-induced hormones—primarily cortisol. Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone released by our adrenal glands when the body believes it’s in trouble. Here are a couple of things to know and remember about the body and cortisol:
- Our bodies cannot differentiate between emotional stress and physical stress. Meaning, an unexpected bill can release the same amount of cortisol and, in doing so, do the same amount of damage as waking up to a snake in your bed or that bear we talked about who is now in your bathroom.
- Our brain (and therefore body) reacts to what it think it sees... whether it’s real or not.
- Cortisol stockpiles fat... not letting the body get rid of it because, being in fight or flight (ready for war), it does not know the next time it will have a chance to eat.
- Cortisol shuts down our immune system... like passengers on a sinking ship throwing their luggage overboard. Cortisol shuts our immune system down because it views the immune system as an unnecessary use of energy, considering the body might not survive the threat.
- Cortisol pulls the emergency break to our metabolism... and sends our digestive system into slow motion while elevating our heart rate and blood pressure. These are all good things when happening only once or twice a year for 10 to 30 minutes at a time but detrimental as a daily occurrence.
The big problem for most of us is that elevated levels of cortisol are being released into our bodies on a daily basis due to chronic levels of stress, a lack of rest — physical and emotional — and an unhealthy hippocampus, which is compounding the problem.
the happy hippocampus
The best way to have a healthy and therefore happy hippocampus is by implementing some of the following into your life:
- Walk one mile a day. A recent study says that we can reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 48% by just walking one mile a day.
- Begin your day with 10 minutes of meditation and mindfulness. Recent research from Harvard Medical School reveals just how healthy meditation and mindfulness is for the hippocampus. Here’s another article.
- Get some sleep. Adults need 7-8 hours of restorative sleep in order to help their hippocampus recover each night.
- Get on a great Omega 3 supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids are also available as DHA and EPA supplements. Recent research, published in Nature Reviews and referenced below, showed that higher blood levels of these important fatty acids, which are the building blocks of neurons, is associated with a larger hippocampus size, better memory, and a much lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Drink less than 4oz of alcohol within a 6 hour period. Alcohol shrinks the hippocampus - big time!!! One study showed how alcohol exposure decreased neurogenesis by nearly 40%. In a study of more than 500 adults over 30 years, researchers found people who drank between 14 and 21 units per week were three times more likely to suffer from hippocampal atrophy
It’s easy to go months—years, even—without thinking about seahorses. Out of sight, out of mind, right? It may not be detrimental to go without considering the ocean's seahorses, but the seahorse—the hippocampus—in our own body desperately needs consideration, even though we cannot see it.
Try implementing some small changes in your life and you will begin to reap big benefits—long and short-term—of a happy hippocampus.