Imagine what it would be like to have no memory. We take for granted that we’ll remember where we are going, where we live, and what we did yesterday. The great Irish writer Oscar Wilde said, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.” But what if that diary gets lost, worn, or old? I believe the Baby Boomers coined the phrase “senior’s moment” and we all chuckle, but for some that “moment” is extremely serious.
My dog Max and I visit a nursing home every week and I find it’s interesting to go into the locked Alzheimer’s wing. One person in particular, who usually stares into space, comes alive when she sees Max and wants to stroke and hug him, and give him a treat. It’s like a distant memory is sparked when she sees him. Each week she greets him with the same recognition.
But this article is not going to deal with something as advanced as Alzheimer’s, which involves a progressive degeneration of the brain cells. Instead, this article is going to address how poor memory is treated from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, along with an emotional perspective which can be helped with counselling.
How Organ Function Affects Memory
In Western physiology, emotional and mental processes are attributed to the brain. In TCM, certain organs are responsible for certain emotions. For example, the heart relates to joy, the liver to anger, and the lungs to sadness and worry. The spleen relates to thinking and the kidneys to fear.
According to Chinese medical theory, memory depends on the state of the spleen, kidneys, and heart, and there is a considerable overlap among how these three organs function. The spleen houses intellect and influences memory in the sense of memorization, studying, and concentration. The kidneys house will-power and are responsible for memory in the sense of memorization of everyday events, names, faces, etc. The heart controls memory because it houses the mind. If the heart is nourished with qi and blood, the mind will be strong, memory and sleep will be good, and the emotions will be stable. However, if the spleen is weak it will not be able to make blood and the heart will not be nourished which will affect sleep and memory. If the kidneys are weak it will affect the heart causing poor memory, insomnia, and agitation.
If the spleen becomes weakened by over-thinking or worrying it creates “dampness” which results in lack of appetite, fatigue, loose stools, poor memory, and a heavy feeling. The spleen’s function of transforming food and fluids into blood and its function of “holding” blood is impaired by overworking and excessive thinking which will create blood deficiency. This, in turn, will create poor memory and concentration.
The kidneys need to be powerful and full of qi in order to support all the other organs. Kidney-essence (an aspect of kidney yin) produces marrow which nourishes the brain. If kidney-essence is weak it will result in poor concentration and memory, dizziness, and the head can feel “empty.”
The heart controls memory because it houses the mind. If the heart is full of qi and blood there will be good sleep, good memory, and balanced emotions. But if this is not the case, there will be insomnia, poor memory, and mental problems such as depression and other emotional problems. Prolonged use of recreational drugs such as cannabis will also result in poor memory and concentration.
The liver is an important organ in terms of emotions because its job is to regulate the smooth flow of qi around the body. The problem is that the liver houses sensitive energy which can disrupt emotions quite easily if the qi becomes stuck, which it will do in times of trauma. This will cause further emotional instability which will affect both the spleen and heart.
Diet for Memory Improvement
Everything in Traditional Chinese Medicine deals with balance – balance of qi, blood, yin and yang. I think diet is one of the most important aspects for creating health. There are so many books available that it can be hard for people to pick and choose what is right for them. In TCM we talk about diet that is specific to the problem that is being addressed, so each person will be encouraged to eat foods that are directly related to their health issue.
For people with poor memory we have to look at which of the conditions we are addressing. If there is dampness caused by spleen qi deficiency then we suggest cutting out raw, cold, food and drink. You can think of the spleen like a sponge. It collects fluids and nutrients, and squeezes them out to nourish the body. If the spleen qi is weak, “the sponge” will not have the strength to distribute the nutrients and will instead become waterlogged. Cold drinks, and raw or greasy foods weaken the spleen’s ability to do its job properly and further aggravate the problem. I see many of my students suffer from weak spleen qi because they burn the candle at both ends while grabbing fast food due to lack of time or finances.
On the other hand, eating lots of cooked vegetables, especially yellow ones which nourish the spleen – along with wild fish and organic chicken – will help to strengthen the spleen. If there is blood deficiency it is important to try to eat more fish and chicken. There also should be protein, like nuts, eggs, beans, or chia seeds with every meal which will cut down on sugar cravings so prevalent with spleen weakness.
As women lose blood every month with their menstrual cycle it is more important for them to eat organic chicken and fish, if possible, to strengthen the blood. As the spleen makes blood to nourish the body, a blood deficiency will affect the heart causing palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, or restlessness. So, in this case, taking care of spleen takes care of the heart.
Overwork and excessive sexual activity weaken the kidneys and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the kidneys support all the organs and a weak kidney will eventually have a negative impact on the health of the other organs.
Through questioning the patient and examining the tongue and pulse, which is like opening a book to the inside of the body, the TCM practitioner will work out what pattern needs to be addressed with acupuncture and, perhaps, herbs. A common herb often prescribed to reduce spleen dampness is semen coicis lachryma jobi (yi yi ren) which is like a food and therefore safe, except during pregnancy.
Emotions have a strong impact on the organs. For example, sadness affects the heart, worry affects the spleen, anger affects the liver (see my article on anger in Vitality’s December 2005/January 2006 issue), and fear affects the kidneys. High anxiety, which seems to be a very common problem (see my article on anxiety in Vitality’s September 2006 issue), will disrupt the qi and affect thought. In some cases counselling is required. Anxiety due to past or present trauma disturbs the qi and clouds the mind which causes a wicked circle of suffering.
A perfect example is the case of a young man I have been counselling who, when he first came for help, had such poor memory that he couldn’t remember large chunks of his life. He had poor appetite and alternating constipation and diarrhoea (a sign of liver qi overriding a weak spleen causing damp). He had experienced extreme emotional trauma in his early life without the support to process it.
During a discussion he would describe a sensation of fuzziness in his head, muddled thinking, and he would start to lose focus. He would have trouble answering the simplest question. This was caused by high anxiety that was triggered by something we were discussing. He had a hard time being “present” because his anxiety would take his mind somewhere else or, if what we were talking about brought up painful memories, he would completely shut down and become distant.
In his case, acupuncture would not have been of much help. It might have offered temporary relief by draining the ‘dampness’, but it would not have addressed the extent of his anxiety – and the relief would have been short lived. We had to work together very slowly differentiating what was truth and what was fiction. For example, was I criticizing and judging him (like past offenders) or offering help? Did I have his best interests at heart or was I out to get him? In other words, if he didn’t have evidence that I was going to hurt him, could he start to believe that my intent was to help? He was programmed to push me away because closeness in the past had caused him pain.
We worked together on finding tools he could use when his anxiety began to take control. Slowly, as his anxiety decreased, his thinking became clearer and his memory improved considerably. Previously his anxiety had ruled him to the extent that there was no room in his head to think about what he wanted out of life because he was in survival mode. He now has a clear enough mind to look for a new area of work because he is unhappy with his current situation and he knows he deserves better for himself.