Verbal memory is a type of short-term memory that consists of our ability to recall words and verbal information.
Via the gut-brain axis, imbalances in your gut microbiome from poor diet, stress, lack of sleep or exercise, and medications can increase inflammation, affecting your brain function (including verbal memory).
An anti-inflammatory diet, lifestyle interventions (exercise, sauna therapy, and music therapy), probiotics, nutritional supplements, and cognitive training exercises may improve verbal memory.
It’s pretty easy to draw correlations between symptoms like heartburn, diarrhea, and bloating and an unhealthy gut, but what about brain symptoms such as memory changes and brain fog? It turns out these may also be related to what’s going on in your gut.
Your digestive health is intimately tied to every aspect of your well-being. The microbes that live in your gut secrete different byproducts like neurotransmitters and vitamins, which contribute to proper brain function. Imbalances in your gut can translate into poor memory performance, including changes to verbal memory.
Verbal memory is a type of short-term memory that can decline for people with cognitive dysfunction or dementia. Recalling items on a word list, a recent conversation, and the name of a new acquaintance are examples of verbal memory. If you struggle with these types of tasks over and over, it may be time to look at what’s going on in your gut.
Enhancing the gut landscape with an anti-inflammatory diet and probiotics, along with taking nutritional supplements, may help restore proper brain function and improve verbal memory. Various lifestyle changes and cognitive exercises like video games, crossword puzzles, and memory training games may also provide important benefits.
In this article, we’ll discuss how poor gut health can lead to memory deficits and physiological changes in the brain, share the different brain-health symptoms you can experience, and more importantly, the research-based strategies to help get you back in the game.
What Is Verbal Memory?
Verbal memory is one aspect of our major cognitive functions — the way we think and process new information. A healthy brain can perform all cognitive functions including [1, 2]:
The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe of your brain and is important for memory. Changes to the hippocampus can occur with different brain-health diseases like dementia and cognitive decline, and can severely limit someone’s capacity to perform everyday activities .
More specifically, these hippocampal changes can affect our verbal memory (the ability to recall words and verbal information), which may look like the following examples :
Having to go back and reread parts of a book
Not remembering the details of a story
Difficulty with free recall, verbal recall, and immediate recall (remembering a word)
Difficulty comprehending or formulating language (aphasia)
Trouble with recalling the name of a new acquaintance
While these changes to memory tasks are frequently associated with dementia, not everyone who experiences memory loss suffers from cognitive decline. Many people can be affected by a loss of verbal memory (ever forgotten part of a recent conversation?), which can be embarrassing and challenging for completing daily tasks.
While you may think of brain-health symptoms as just neuroscience, neurology, and/or psychiatry-related, the human brain can’t be separated from the rest of the body. For example, research demonstrates that certain conditions like diabetes, prediabetes, metabolic syndrome, and depression can increase the risk of dementia and memory impairment as we age .
Even our gut plays an important role in brain health, including memory. This could be due in part to changes in the gut microbiome, since gut bacteria have the ability to communicate with and cause changes in the central nervous system (CNS) . Let’s take a deeper look at the gut-brain connection.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Your intestines are considered the second brain of the body and in fact, during early fetal development, your gut and your brain both develop from the same clump of cells. A constant stream of information flows from your brain to your gut and vice versa along the vagus nerve .
Your brain regulates aspects of digestion and motility (waves of muscle contractions that move waste through your digestive tract) via the vagus nerve. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine that are manufactured by your gut microbes travel along the vagus nerve to your brain to affect things like :
Imbalances in the gut microbiome from poor diet, stress, lack of sleep or exercise, and medications can increase inflammation, lead to dysregulation of the gut-brain axis, and affect brain function [8, 9]. When we target gut health with diet and lifestyle, it’s likely that we may be able to restore and/or enhance brain functions like verbal memory.
Gut-Healing Strategies to Improve Verbal Memory
If you’re beginning to notice some brain-health symptoms like difficulty with verbal recall, there are some simple steps to take. In the clinic, we start with basic diet and lifestyle changes, then reassess and recommend additional therapies as needed.
Nutrition for Verbal Memory
There isn’t any research on diets and verbal memory specifically, but in general, a whole-foods, anti-inflammatory diet with minimal sugar and processed foods likely supports brain health and cognitive function. The benefits may be due in part to the prevention and/or reduction in leaky gut (a disruption in the barrier lining the digestive tract) and brain inflammation [10, 11].
One 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis found the Mediterranean diet to have the most evidence (though it’s also the most-studied diet) for protection against cognitive decline. Other anti-inflammatory diets that are plant-based, higher in fruits and vegetables, low in processed ingredients, and rich in healthy fats have also shown to be protective against cognitive decline and are associated with lower risk of cognitive disorders [12, 13].
In the clinic at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine, we often start with the Paleo diet, which embodies our four key diet principles:
Eat to control inflammation
Eat to control and balance blood sugar
Find your ideal intake of carbohydrates and prebiotics
Identify your food allergies and intolerances
On the Paleo diet, you’ll avoid grains, beans and legumes, processed foods, and dairy products and focus on:
Vegetables and fruit
Meats, fish, and eggs
Healthy fats and oils
Nuts and seeds
While diet therapy will likely need to be personalized, the Paleo diet gives us a great starting point. If you follow this diet for a few weeks and see improvements in your brain-health symptoms like verbal memory, that’s great.
If you don’t notice a change, then you may want to move to a low FODMAP diet, which helps correct gut dysbiosis. It may be especially beneficial for those with IBS or SIBO who experience brain fog, as it can reduce leaky gut and inflammation [14, 15, 16].
Prebiotics and Probiotics for Verbal Memory
Probiotics not only target gut health by reducing inflammation and leaky gut, they may be a great option for enhancing cognitive function and verbal memory . Let’s look at some of the research on people who took probiotics for 12 weeks:
Stressed adults who took certain probiotic strains had improved memory, learning, and verbal memory .
Two trials found improved cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients [19, 20].
Older adults with memory complaints had improved memory test scores .
A randomized controlled trial of patients with mild cognitive impairment found improved cognitive performance, especially with regard to attention .
While research on the direct cognitive benefits of probiotics is mixed, there’s ample evidence that probiotics are a great strategy for healing your gut. Through our understanding of the gut-brain axis, we know the importance of having a healthy digestive tract for better brain health. Even better, probiotics are safe, effective, and have a wide variety of health benefits, so they’re worth a try.
Prebiotics (plant fibers that help your healthy gut bacteria flourish) are another option. One 2019 literature review found that prebiotics increased beneficial gut bacteria, which had a positive impact on gut-brain axis communication and cognitive function . While the research is limited and mostly completed in healthy young or middle-age adults, prebiotics can likely improve learning and working memory.
Other Ways to Improve Verbal Memory
Improving gut health is the mainstay of maximizing brain health, but if you need more support, there are some other options to consider for improving verbal memory.
Lifestyle Changes for Verbal Memory
Addressing certain lifestyle factors may improve your cognitive function, including verbal learning and verbal memory:
1. Chronic stress is a common cause of gut inflammation and leaky gut, which can negatively impact cognitive functions like verbal memory [24, 25]. Practicing daily stress-management techniques like meditation, deep breathing, and/or yoga may improve your memory, attention, and other cognitive functions .
2. Exercise can reduce leaky gut and inflammation, improve episodic memory , and help to boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is key to learning and memory .
Exercise over several days has been shown to significantly improve cognitive flexibility and working memory in teens and young adults .
Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, resistance training, and mind-body exercises (Tai Chi, Baduanjin, dance, and handball) have been shown to improve overall cognitive function and delayed recall in people with mild cognitive impairment [29, 30].
3. Sleep is crucial for proper brain function and lack of quality sleep can lead to leaky gut and gut inflammation (potentially affecting our brain health) . Restful sleep helps you solidify memories, improves learning, and allows your body to get rid of waste that can slow cognition .
One study found that healthy, older men who spent less time in REM sleep had reduced cognitive performance over time .
A study of patients with Crohn’s disease found a strong association between poor-quality sleep and cognitive dysfunction .
A randomized controlled trial of kids with ADHD found those who incorporated sleep hygiene practices had a small reduction in symptoms and improvements in working memory .
Managing stress, exercising, and sleeping are all pretty basic foundations for good brain health, but there are some less well-known lifestyle options that may benefit cognitive health too:
4. Sauna therapy has been found to improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, boost exercise performance, and promote detoxification [36, 37, 38]. More importantly, it’s also associated with better mental health and has protective effects on the brain.
One observational study found people who practiced sauna-bathing nine to 12 times per month were less likely to develop dementia than those who had minimal use of or didn’t use a sauna at all . So, while there aren’t any studies specifically showing sauna use improves verbal memory, it’s one promising option to help support healthy brain function, especially for people who don’t routinely exercise and sweat .
5. Music therapy (listening to, singing, playing, and/or composing music) can positively influence neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change and reorganize based on internal and external stimuli) and has been shown to improve relaxation, behavior, and cognitive function in patients with and without dementia .
6. Mental stimulation is associated with better cognitive health and may also improve verbal memory, mood, general health, and quality of life [41, 42].
A systematic review and meta-analysis of healthy adults found computerized brain-training programs significantly improved their processing speed, working memory, executive function, and verbal memory .
A systematic review and meta-analysis found memory-training programs led to short-term improvements in verbal working memory for kids with learning disabilities .
Nutritional Supplements for Verbal Memory
While there aren’t many studies that specifically look at the benefits of nutritional supplements and verbal memory, there are plenty that support taking supplements to boost overall cognition. Some supplements that may benefit cognitive function include:
Ashwagandha for eight weeks has been found in one randomized controlled trial to improve auditory-verbal working memory .
B vitamin supplementation for more than three months improved global cognition and episodic memory in people over 40 without dementia, and global cognition in those with mild cognitive impairment . One systematic review found high-dose B-complex supplements to improve cognitive performance in both healthy and nutrient-lacking adults . However, other research studies indicate no clear benefit [48, 49].
Omega-3 fatty acids support healthy hippocampus function and help maintain hippocampal volume. Supplementing with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) specifically (a type of omega-3) may help with cognitive function in those with Alzheimer’s and also reduce dementia risk [3, 50].
Phosphatidylserine may positively impact memory and cognition in elderly people and has also shown to lead to significant improvements in sustained attention and memory .
Multivitamins may improve working memory, but the research is mixed .
When gut health is poor, it’s difficult to reap the benefits of nutritional supplements. It’s important to first support your gut health through diet and lifestyle, and then if you need more support once gut function has improved, you may want to consider adding nutritional supplements. Remember to discuss any nutritional supplements with your healthcare provider before adding them to your routine.
Better Gut Health and Lifestyle Changes May Improve Verbal Memory
An imbalanced gut can negatively affect brain function. If you’re routinely having trouble recalling words or things you’ve just heard or read, consider implementing some of the above strategies.
Start with an anti-inflammatory diet like the Paleo diet and get your lifestyle dialed in:
Practice daily mindfulness (meditation, yoga, deep breathing)
Add in exercise (walk as much as you can and try resistance training)
Maintain a healthy sleep routine
Consider adding sauna (three to four sessions per week) and music therapy
If you notice benefits, then continue with your healthy changes. If you’ve still got room for improvement, add in probiotics and cognitive training exercises. If your symptoms don’t improve or worsen, you may want to seek out neuropsychological testing for further support.
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