Foggy Memory After Anesthesia? Support Brain Resiliency

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

January 30, 2023

Foggy Memory After Anesthesia? Support Brain Resiliency
Have you ever had general anesthesia or know someone who has? Did you notice any subtle changes since that time to your long-term memory? Research suggests that general anesthesia use even after one exposure poses long-term challenges in susceptible individuals and age groups.

Over the course of your lifetime, you encounter a vast array of challenges and stressors that affect brain health even once the event is over. Building brain resiliency and optimal nutritional reserves through good self-care habits impacts your overall tolerance to many things.

Anesthesia Lingering Effects

General anesthesia exposure is much more commonplace today than any other time in history. You may have had it with a tonsillectomy, appendix or gall bladder removal, joint replacement surgery, birth defect repair, or repair of broken bones and torn ligaments, heart surgery, etc. Over 300 million surgeries are performed globally each year since anesthetics were introduced in 1842.

When you think about your experience with anesthetics, you might recall the nausea and upset stomach, mental fuzziness and “out-of-it behaviors” that occur immediately after the procedure. For some individuals, subtle effects may linger for weeks or longer. You may find that you lose your “train of thought”, have poorer memory recall, or experience more brain fog than usual.

These lingering effects may be more noticeable in your aging parent, but they can also happen in kids too. These slight changes are often attributed to stress and/or age.

Whether it is a short, single event or multiple, extended procedures, general anesthesia can create neurological effects that may last longer than you think. New evidence shows that common general anesthetics affect the brain’s memory centers in ways that were previously not understood.

Memory Center Affected

General anesthetics naturally shut down the memory center of your brain’s hippocampus during surgery and make you feel like you are sleeping. This is a desirable effect during the procedure. Anesthetics, however, work on various mechanisms different than sleep. They impact nerve networks in the hippocampus and interfere with natural activity and connections long after the exposure. The greatest negative risks and effects have been identified in the preborn infant to the three-year-old preschooler as well the elderly.

Concerns for Children

An increasing body of medical literature suggests that general anesthesia and sedation medications are neurotoxic and poses harmful effects to a young child’s brain and neurodevelopment. These effects have been studied primarily in animals.

In a recent study, rats were exposed to a single, short-term general anesthesia in early infancy. They were raised in a controlled environment. Later in adulthood, brain samples were analyzed and compared to the norm. Adverse cellular and mitochondrial changes were identified. Their research findings suggested that limited, early life exposure resulted in “persistent neuroinflammation” and caused neurotoxicity “mimicking aspects of chronic neurodegenerative diseases”.

Another rodent study demonstrated that after a single, short exposure of general anesthesia, “disturbing” mitochondrial changes were observed. These changes were like those seen in neurodevelopmental disorders.

Concerns for the Elderly

Elderly individuals are also at high risk. In serious cases, postoperative cognitive dysfunction complications can occur, which significantly impairs brain health and quality of life.

General anesthetics and surgery are hypothesized to cause neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration likely related with build-up of amyloid beta or changes in tau protein management. Individuals who have poor blood flow to the brain from blood pressure dysregulation or blocked circulation are at greater risk.

Other Risk Groups

The literature focuses on young children and elderly as the most vulnerable to general anesthesia effects due to their stages in life and neurological development or burden of wear and tear. Individuals of other age groups who have had multiple or prolonged anesthesia exposure may also be at risk.

Those who have underlying brain, gut, autoimmune, chronic inflammation, or mitochondrial challenges are also likely to be more vulnerable to neurotoxins and recovery challenges. Genetics too play a role in anesthesia tolerance and detoxification.

Findings and Debates

Various animal studies have shown without a doubt that anesthetics induce cell death, suppress nerve growth, disrupt synapse formation and plasticity (nerve connections), and affect learning, memory, and cognitive function. Results in animal studies, however, do not always correlate to human health.

A preclinical review study suggested “a single brief exposure to general anesthesia is not associated with any long-term neurodevelopment deficits in children’s brain. They did suggest that multiple exposures may affect cognitive speed and motor skills in children.

There is considerable debate and concern within medical literature. As you reflect on this information, I hope you engage in ways to protect and support your brain resiliency and overall health throughout your lifetime.

Building and Protecting Brain Resiliency

Building and protecting brain resiliency for you and your loved ones is an ongoing lifelong process. You have only one brain to last for a lifetime. Unexpected bumps happen. Engage in proactive brain resiliency choices with healthy lifestyle, diet and exercise and acts of prevention to reduce chances of events that need anesthesia as part of treatment.

Lifestyle Choices

Healthy choices include wearing a seat belt. Use a designated driver if you are under the influence or sleep deprived. Wear a helmet with various sports and recreational activities. Use proper safety equipment for dangerous work and play activities. Wear proper shoes for the environment to avoid those sudden slips and falls.

Your brain needs and loves a variety of activities, playtime, and rest. Strive for consistent sleep and circadian rhythms. Participate in exercise to oxygenate your brain, keep fit and support healthy circulation and blood pressure. Do your best to keep your blood sugar levels stable and your A1C at 5.6 or lower.

Engage in activities that require hand-eye coordination, handwriting, balance, and movement. Learn a new language or a musical instrument. Enjoy nature. Manage stress.

Make deliberate healthy dietary choices with a whole foods diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, unrefined grains, beans and legumes, seeds and nuts, and organic proteins. Drink clean, filtered water and maintain adequate hydration.

Reduce environmental toxins and plastics. Limit or avoid alcohol, tobacco, and/or toxic inhalants. If you use medications, replenish drug-nutrient depletions. Check with your health care professional for this information.

Nutrients for Adult Brain and Mitochondrial Support

Provide your brain with essential fats and oils necessary for its normal structure, repair, and cell membrane stability. Omega-3 DHA, choline, and phosphatidyl serine are required structures for neurological repair.

Mitochondrial protection and function require several antioxidants and co-factors. Ensure optimal nutrient reserves to protect against mitochondrial decay. Important nutrients include:

In addition, these nutrients have also been found helpful:

Support Your Gut Flora Too

Support your gut microbiome with beneficial flora. Animal studies demonstrated that anesthesia altered gut flora, provoked inflammatory response in the digestive tract, and altered mitochondrial function. Probiotic support helped to mitigate these stress responses and supported neurological tolerance to the anesthetic. Dietary fiber and prebiotics like arabinogalactan found in Immune Plus help make the short chain fatty acid butyric acid for your gut.

Choices for Children

Nutritional status during your infant and child’s formative years affects their development and health for life. Ask yourself a few questions. What is their overall picture of support like? Was it a healthy pregnancy or was it high risk, high stress or with limited prenatal nutrition?

How about breast-fed versus formula? If you used baby formula, was it filled with corn syrup as the first ingredient? How about their diet? Is their diet predominantly whole foods or processed fast foods? Is your child engaged in regular physical exercise or is their lifestyle predominantly television, device and/or gaming outside of school?

Ensure children are provided with essential omega-3 DHA, a multiple vitamin, minerals, antioxidants and probiotics. Choices to consider include DHA Kids, Super Mini Multi, Coral Calcium, Grape Seed Extract and probiotic rich foods (yogurt, kefir, fermented vegetables) or supplement. Children two years and older may use Super Dophilus.

Optimization of your current health status plays an important role in your resiliency. Unexpected bumps happen in life which can disrupt health and require medical intervention. If you feel that you are aging faster than you should, give your brain some tender loving care to bounce back.

Learn more:

Mitochondria – Drugs that Injure and What Mitochondria Injury Looks Like

Exercise and Mitochondria – Use It and Nurture It

Enlarged Adenoids Linked with Food Allergies

Your Appendix: Worthless Remnant or Sophisticated Storehouse?

Childhood Removal of Appendix or Tonsils is Linked to Increased Risk of Early Heart Attack

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