Can't remember where you just set down your cell phone? Or what time you told your guy you'd meet him for dinner? You're too young to forget all this stuff...aren't you? Not necessarily. If you're under any amount of long-term stress — dealing daily with a micromanaging boss, staying up nights with a colicky infant, taking care of a sick loved one — your body is constantly pumping out stress hormones such as cortisol. And studies suggest that consistently high levels of cortisol can hamper your ability to learn new things and remember them later. In fact, it could permanently damage brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, where information is tagged for long-term memory.
To restore balance: You'll like this advice. Think of your favorite healthy hobbies — solving Sudoku, walking with your pup, munching on raspberries from your garden — and simply do them more often. In a recent study, people who practiced lifestyle changes like these that were intended to help reduce stress, boost memory skills, and encourage healthy eating and physical fitness had greater powers of recall after just two weeks, possibly due to lower stress hormone levels, says lead author Gary Small, M.D., a psychiatry professor at UCLA and author of The Longevity Bible. More ways to mellow out: Try meditation, yoga, or any moderately intense aerobic exercise; express your spirituality or religious devotion (join a choir, use your rosaries, say a prayer); or simply sleep 20 minutes later in the morning — all of which have been proved to kick down cortisol. Small also recommends taking frequent relaxation breaks during the day: Just close your eyes and focus on breathing slowly and deeply for two to five minutes.
If you struggle to fall or stay asleep, particularly just before your period, it may be due to the sharp drop in the hormone progesterone that immediately precedes menstruation, according to Joyce Walsleben, Ph.D., associate professor in the Sleep Disorders Center at the New York University School of Medicine. Progesterone is a relaxant, so when levels plummet — as they do just before your period or after giving birth — you may feel restless and unable to sleep. (Breast tenderness, bloating, and cramps — also side effects of rapidly shifting hormones — don't help.)
To restore balance: Preventing the monthly seesaw of hormones requires actually banishing your period. Fortunately, that doesn't mean holding out for menopause, thanks to Seasonale, a form of extended-use birth control that reduces period frequency from 13 times a year to just four. If you're looking for a more natural approach, Walsleben offers this multiprong attack for reducing the side effects of hormonal swings: Drink plenty of fluids to minimize bloating, avoid caffeine after noon, and take ibuprofen before going to bed on nights you're likely to have cramps. And an hour or two before you hit the sheets, try sipping a glass of warm milk, or snack on a few slices of turkey or a handful of nuts. These foods are rich in tryptophan, a building block for the brain chemical serotonin, which helps control sleep. If you still find yourself staring at the ceiling, talk to your doctor about a prescription sleep aid. Lunesta, a new drug proved to safely summon the sandman, isn't supposed to be habit-forming — but the jury is still out, so consider taking it for no longer than a few weeks.