The Amazing Human Memory: How Alcohol and Caffeine Can Affect It

Memories... They essentially make us who we are. From reflecting on those tiny childhood mishaps to struggling to remember where we left the car keys, memory seems to play a crucial role in our daily lives. It’s what grants us a sense of self. It’s what makes our lives a continual experience.

Given the due importance of memory, have you ever wondered what you are doing to take care of it, boost it, or protect it? When was the last time you actually thought about how the foods you eat or the things you do can affect the way your brain forms these memories?

Well, if you haven’t, don’t worry. You still have time. In this article, we will explore the effects of the two most common everyday beverages on your memory formation and storage: Coffee and Alcohol. So let’s dive in.

Caffeine and Memory

Coffee and Memory

All coffee drinkers out there; have you ever wondered what your favorite beverage does to your brain and the memory stored in it? You must have heard many people explaining how consuming a cup of coffee makes them more alert. But some of them may also swear on its memory-boosting effects, leaving you to wonder is it actually true? Is there a positive connection between the caffeine-loaded hot cup of Joe and memory?

How Caffeine Works 

Let’s begin by discussing how coffee or caffeine works inside your body.

As soon as you drink a cup of coffee, the caffeine inside hits your brain directly and boosts alertness. (1) But the effects on your memory is up for debate and the reviews are mixed.

Some studies have found that consuming caffeine improves certain types of memory. Others suggest that the exact benefit of caffeine in this context depends upon the state, which means that it only boosts memory if you consume it while taking in the information and during its recollection.

If you do not consume caffeine while any new piece of information is being presented to you, you may perform poorly during its recollection even if you are trying to remember it while having a cup of coffee. On the contrary, if you are consuming a cup of coffee while acquiring new information but don’t sip on any while recalling it, you may perform worse than the former. (2)

Some other studies have shown that caffeine can worsen your performance in some memory tasks. It is also suggested that caffeine may force people to recall false memory as well.

Caffeine and Memory of Older Adults

The research investigating the effects of caffeine on the memory of older adults is limited but promising and has revealed that it can positively affect the age-associated natural declines in their memories. For instance, one of these studies has shown that morning people i.e. the ones who perform better during the morning hours, who consume caffeine can prevent an afternoon decline in memory. (3)

At the same time, some evidence has disregarded caffeine as a reliable way to improve memory in people of this age group. In fact, it has been proven that older people who have consumed any caffeine-containing foods tend to perform poorly during tests targeting their episodic memory. Although a good amount of evidence suggests an improvement in long-term memory due to habitual use of caffeine, scientists are not too sure if it has any role in counteracting any age-related memory decline. (4)

Because of the potentially addictive nature of caffeine, self-medicating it to improve memory is not recommended as it can make things worse. For example, it may disturb your sleep and induce a withdrawal phase that can induce memory problems.

Does the Source of Caffeine Matter?

When it comes to discussing the link between caffeine and memory, it is also important to consider if the source of caffeine really matters. Well, studies have found that older people perform better cognitively when they consume caffeine from coffee, but don’t experience any positive effects after taking it in the form of teas and colas.

Similarly, energy drinks loaded with caffeine have been found to improve wakefulness but do not affect cognitive functions. Surprisingly, the memory improvement has been recorded with the consumption of caffeinated gum.

Alcohol and Memory

Alcohol and Memory

Research has shown that consuming alcohol in large amounts can have negative effects on both long- and short-term memory. Additionally, it can also affect the structure of the brain. Fortunately, there might be a few ways to reduce these effects of alcohol on memory which will be discussed in the later sections.

How Alcohol Affects Memory

To begin, you must know that there are two types of memories: long-term or retrospective, and short-term or prospective. The retrospective memories include all the events that have happened in different stages of life. Prospective memory, on the other hand, includes more recent memories, including everyday brain functions.

It is common to forget certain things from time to time. However, heavy alcohol drinkers are more likely to make memory mistakes than non-drinkers, and those who do not drink on a regular basis. Some of the common memory mistakes made by such users include forgetting to remember if they switched off the stove, locked the car, or completed a certain task.

Mechanism of Action

Alcohol can hinder memory by reducing the ability of the brain to convert its short-term memory into long-term storage. Consider a delivery truck loaded with the memories of events you just experienced today moving to more permanent storage, but get hits by alcohol and get sidetracked. When this truck never makes it to its required destination, all the memory luggage it was carrying is lost and the person fails to recall any of it.

People who also indulge in frequent heavy drinking eventually experience damage to the hippocampus; an area of the brain directly involved in learning and memory. Studies have found that heavy drinking can directly target this part of the brain, leading to its shrinkage.

Lastly, consuming alcohol, even in small amounts, can affect the glutamate, a chemical system that affects memory. A disruption in this system is why many people suffer from a temporary blackout during heavy alcohol consumption.

Alcohol and Memory Black Outs

Alcohol also carries a tendency to interfere with the development of new memories inside the brain. This implies that heavy drinkers are more likely to completely forget events that happened to them or around them during the entire drinking time; however, they may remember everything before the alcohol session.

Alcohol can also cause blackouts in heavy drinkers which, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, can be of two types. (5)

The first type, known as partial blackout, can occur even when you have consumed alcohol in relatively lesser amounts and includes forgetting simpler things, like others’ names.

The second type, known as a complete blackout, is when you completely forget everything that occurred during a specific duration of time. During such an attack, you may also feel like your cognitive skills and the power of judgment have been completely impaired. You may hear other people telling you about what happened while you were drinking and you won’t be able to recall anything.

You will notice that these blackouts mostly occur when you are binge drinking, and the reason is that binge drinking increases the levels of alcohol in your blood far too quickly. The exact amount of alcohol in the blood that may lead to one of these blackouts varies from person to person.

How Much Alcohol is Too Much?

A recently published study investigated the amount of alcohol in reference to its effects on everyday memory. The researchers reported that a heavy drinker developed 30% more memory issues as compared to non-drinkers, and around 25% more as compared to people who consumed sparingly. (6)

The same study also revealed that the heavy drinkers were more prone to missing important events like birthdays, and other activities like paying bills and missing appointments. Interestingly, memory-related problems were also found in those drinking moderately, but to a lesser extent.

Recovering the Lost Memory

Researchers have been particularly interested to find different ways to recover brain function in heavy drinkers. One such way is a technique called Future Event Stimulation or FES in which several strategies like making indexed lists are used. This technique has been found to help people remember event-based tasks, in particular.

Abstinence, of course, remains the greatest technique for recovering the normal brain structure; however, it may take up to a year or even more to occur.

Takeaway 

The human memory is like a filing cabinet inside your brain that keeps storing bits and pieces of information, ready to become available as and when we need them. As delicate as it sounds, your memory processing and storage is prone to get affected by all kinds of foods and drinks, two of which are alcohol and coffee. While coffee has been known to significantly boost it, alcohol can have deteriorating effects on your memory.

Irrespective of what beverage you choose yourself, make sure to consume it in moderation as an excess of both can be harmful.

To Your Health and Happiness, Doctor Danielle

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