Cinnamon Helps You Learn and Remember
By Erica Geiger
The United States dietary supplements industry is huge, bringing in over $20 billion in sales every year. Since 2004, the industry has seen rapid growth every single year. More than 80% of adults buy supplements annually. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, doesn’t regulate these products the same way they regulate food and medications. This has resulted in mislabeled supplements, outrageous claims, and one study found that many natural supplements didn’t even contain the products they advertised. The FDA does have rules in place but it’s mostly up to the individual companies to regulate their own products.
With the lack of FDA regulation, companies can make all sorts of claims about their supplements. Unfortunately, not many of these claims are backed up by actual science. A common claim is that certain supplements can improve memory and learning. While it’s true that there are practices and substances capable of affecting memory functions, they’re not quite what you’d expect.
Ginkgo is commonly touted as a memory enhancer. Tablets, capsules, and tinctures are available at most stores, with marketing claims such as “Improves Memory” and “Enhances Mental Alertness”. Actual science says otherwise. In a large 2012 study, researchers found absolutely no difference between ginkgo and a placebo during both learning and memory exercises. Ginkgo also had no effect on mental attention. The authors concluded, “We report that G. biloba had no ascertainable positive effects on a range of targeted cognitive functions in healthy individuals.”
While ginkgo might not help you on that next exam, there are a few other things you can try without spending money on supplements.
If you’re trying to remember something or learn a new skill, exercise might be better than any supplement on the market. In a very recent study, a group of human volunteers were taught picture-location associations and then quizzed to get a baseline score. Some participants exercised right after the recall test, some exercised four hours later, and the last group didn’t exercise at all. 48 hours later, all participants were retested. The researchers found that the delayed exercise group performed better than average. There was no significant difference between the other groups. The group that exercised four hours after learning also had increased activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning. Other studies had already linked exercise to improved memory but this one showed that it works best if you wait a few hours first.
There have been many studies on how music affects memory and learning. Results have been mixed but it appears that classical music, at the very least, can have positive effects on working memory for adults. In a 2007 study, researchers tested adults using working memory tasks. Working memory is what you use, for example, when trying to memorize a definition. In the study, one group listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, another group listened to white noise, and a third group worked in silence. Participants who had listened to Vivaldi performed significantly better on memory tests. Music may not work for every type of learning but it’s at least worth a shot when trying to memorize something for a test. Note that current studies have generally used classical music (Vivaldi is actually the standard for these types of experiments), it’s unknown how other types of music affect memory.
Most people assume that proper sleep makes it easier to learn (and it’s true). Something that not everyone knows, however, is that sleep is actually critical for memory formation. While we sleep, memories we’ve formed during the day are strengthened. In past studies, a good night’s sleep was found to significantly improve performance in various tasks, including beating video game levels and learning to play new songs on the piano. During REM sleep, your brain is active and works with your memories, often linking them to previous ones. This partially explains why studying the day of the exam, even if you slept fine, isn’t as useful as studying the night before.
Let’s say you have an important exam coming up. You listened to classical music while studying, exercised a few hours later, and got a great night’s sleep. Getting a good breakfast will at least help your mental alertness and you can potentially sneak in one last memory enhancer–cinnamon. Cinnamon, which you probably already have at home, is more likely to help your memory than any of the expensive supplements at health food stores. In a recent study, mice that consumed cinnamon showed improved memory and learning ability. Specifically, the researchers were able to convert “poor learners” (mice that had performed badly on memory tests) to “good learners” by giving them a small daily dose of ground cinnamon. Cinnamon contains a compound called sodium benzoate that stimulates neurons in the hippocampus, improving memory and learning. The study hasn’t been replicated with humans yet but hey, there’s more evidence of cinnamon helping your memory than gingko and ginseng!
Photo: Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com