Stress Hormones and Memory: Good Guys or Bad Guys?
“I am so sorry I forgot, I am so stressed I can’t remember anything.”
Sound familiar? Not surprisingly, given that stress is rated as a common cause of memory problems. Would it surprise you to know that we need stress hormones to have good memory function?
Scientific studies performed at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress have shown that when stress hormone levels are outside normal limits, our ability to learn and retain information can sometimes be disrupted.
What happens when stress hormone levels are too high?
In one study, we gave participants a medication that temporarily made their stress hormone levels higher than normal. We then tested their memory and found that their memory was impaired. So when stress hormone levels are very high, learning and remembering can be difficult.
take home message
Optimal memory function during everyday situations requires a healthy balance in stress hormone levels. Too few stress hormones can be just as bad for memory as having too many stress hormones. For normal memory function therefore, we need an optimal level of stress hormones circulating in our system and our brain. But…there are also times when high levels of stress hormones actually help to increase our memory.
What happens when stress hormone levels are too low?
In a second study, we gave participants a medication that temporarily lowered their stress hormone levels and tested their memory. Their memory ability was again impaired!
Can we restore memory that is impaired by stress hormones?
We then gave the same participants a medication that brought their stress hormone levels back to normal. This restored their memory performance to their normal everyday memory functioning!
Altogether, these results showed us that stress hormones are essential for normal memory function. They also showed us that too few or too many circulating stress hormones can impair memory performance. This led us to conclude that there is an inverted-U shape function that relates memory and stress in humans.