What is Brain fog?
Do you forget where you parked your car at the store? Do you email the wrong person because you’re thinking of someone else? Do you begin a task and almost immediately forget what you’re doing?
You’re in the middle of an assignment or a conversation when, suddenly, your brain seems to short-circuit. Maybe you forget a word or you space out. Instead of feeling sharp, you feel like you’re walking through jello. You lose concentration, and the world seems like it’s moving faster than you can keep up with.
If you’ve experienced an instance like this, you might be dealing with brain fog.
Put simply, brain fog is a term to describe mental fatigue. And, depending on how severe it is, it can impact your performance at work or school.
Brain fog is undeniably frustrating: you know you can do exceptional work, but having no mental clarity can feel like running in slow motion. On top of that, getting flustered can aggravate the symptoms, thus repeating the cycle.
The good news is that brain fog is not permanent. By taking the right steps, you can reverse the symptoms to find a clear mind and even prevent them from happening again.
What is brain fog?
Brain fog is not a diagnosis; rather, it’s a general term that describes a series of symptoms. For example, you might have issues with short-term memory, or lack of concentration or mental clarity, or the inability to focus on a task.
We all have days like this, but if you experience brain fog regularly, then it might be the result of a nutritional deficiency or an underlying health issue. Mental fog can make decision-making especially hard, and it can interfere with daily work or home life. Once you can identify the cause of brain fog, you can take steps to minimize its effects.
What might cause brain fog? Here are a few theories.
1. Oxidative stress
Oxidative stress is a blanket term that describes the state caused by two things: excessive reactive oxidative species (ROS) production or a reduced antioxidative defence system.
One or both conditions can lead to cellular chaos, cell death, permanent tissue damage, and chronic disease. ROS are created by anything that causes stress: for example, poor diet, smoking, sedentary behaviour, environmental factors, psychological stressors, and abnormal sleep patterns.
Oxidative stress affects the brain’s cortex, hippocampus, and striatum, which govern your memory network. To combat these free radical production pathways, your system can benefit from supplementation of vitamins A, C, E, and omega fatty acids.* Additional antioxidant support can be obtained from glutathione and CoQ10.*
2. Hormone imbalances
The baby brain can be a real thing, especially during the first half of a woman’s pregnancy. Hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy can cause an expectant mother’s forgetfulness. Although the brain is on high-alert throughout a pregnancy, short-term memory changes can be attributed to elevated levels of progesterone and estrogen.
But a person can experience hormonal imbalances whatever their sex or stage of life. During menopause, estrogen decreases can cause memory problems and cloudy-headedness. In men, a lower testosterone level at any age can explain mental fatigue.
Your thyroid gland can also be an important contributor to brain fog. Thyroid hormones connect directly with the brain to regulate energy, metabolism, and executive function, and both hypo- and hyperthyroid can explanation memory issues. Check your hormone levels.
3. Dietary Inflammation
Inflammatory foods can increase pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood and brain, leaving you with low-grade inflammation that can manifest as a foggy brain. In some cases, being overweight can contribute to inflammation. Inflammation stresses your body and rapidly uses up nutrients – specifically the B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamins C and E.
Pinpoint those foods that might be contributing to inflammation. Common dietary culprits are refined sugars, vegetable oils, processed meats, and alcohol. Genetic analysis, followed by allergy blood tests and an elimination diet, can indicate if you are susceptible, intolerant, or allergic (or not) to common allergens, such as proteins in dairy products, eggs, and gluten.
4. Chronic infections
You could be walking around with viral, fungal, or bacterial infection with little to no other symptoms other than brain fog. One of the most common lingering infections is an overgrowth of Candida yeast that occurs naturally in your body. Candida is a fungus that hides in your mouth and gut. It can overgrow from stress, from a high-sugar diet, or from antibiotic use that leads to an imbalance of “good” versus “bad” bacteria in the gut. Because your gut communicates directly with your brain, miscommunication can alter your memory capabilities.
See your health-care professional for the appropriate diagnosis and treatment options. Take a probiotic supplement with antibiotics, antifungals, or other medications prescribed to support your immune health.* Eat plenty of antifungal spices like cinnamon, cayenne, or garlic, as well as foods high in fibre.
5. Prescription medications
Benzodiazepines prescribed for anxiety act directly on the parts of the brain that convert short-term memories into long-term memories. Statin drugs lower cholesterol everywhere in the body, including in the brain, where cholesterol is needed for connections between nerve cells. Narcotic painkillers change chemical signals associated with cognition. Beta-blockers to treat hypertension also block chemical messages in the brain, such as neurotransmitters. Nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics prescribed for sleep can act on many of the same brain pathways and chemical messengers as benzodiazepines.
Sleep aids can cause amnesia and sometimes trigger dangerous or strange behaviours, such as cooking a meal or driving a car with no recollection of doing so on waking up.
Discuss using non-prescription alternatives with your health-care professional.
6. Sleep apnea
Sleep institutes estimate that 9% of women and 24% of men suffer from sleep apnea, a common breathing disorder in which the upper throat muscles relax when sleeping, restricting air to the brain. This lack of oxygen can cause brain arousal in all sleep stages, resulting in your body not receiving the high-quality, highly-oxygenated sleep it requires.
You wake up in a fog that will adversely affect your energy and metabolism all day.
Sleep apnea can affect people of any age, including infants and children, but it is most frequently seen in men over 40, especially those who are overweight or obese.
For proper diagnosis, get a sleep test at a sleep laboratory or an at-home test, although losing weight is a risk factor you can tackle on your own. Modify your diet, portion sizes, and meal timing, and add 150 minutes of low to moderately intense exercise and weight-lifting to your weekly schedule. Set a starting goal of a 10% weight loss to help reduce this risk.
Brain Fog Symptoms
Brain fog affects people in different ways. You might experience one or all of the following symptoms which can vary in intensity depending on the day. Here are the four most common symptoms of brain fog:
1. Lack of Concentration
When you can’t concentrate, mental tasks can feel like a moving target. Rather than being able to hone in and focus, your mind constantly wanders off, making it difficult to get anything done.
Brain fog can affect your ability to remember all kinds of information, including academic material, daily tasks like forgetting your car keys, or personal memories like what you ate for dinner last night.
3. Chronic Fatigue
I fell asleep during my fair share of lectures in college, but chronic fatigue is much different. As a symptom of brain fog, chronic fatigue is characterized by extreme, never-ending tiredness that can’t be remedied by rest or caffeine.
Since chronic fatigue is also a symptom of other disorders, consider talking to your doctor if it’s happening to you.
4. Mental Flatlining
The remaining symptoms of brain fog can be classified under what I call “mental flatlining.” Instead of feeling sharp and active like you normally would, you feel “off”: dull, unmotivated, unproductive, and maybe depressed. In this state, all of your day’s tasks and activities blur together, making it seem like you’re living in slow motion.
If you’ve experienced any or all of the above symptoms, you know they take a toll on your academics, work, and social life.
How to get rid of brain fog and improve focus
1. Give your digestive system a rest.
Intermittent fasting is all the rage in the nutrition and weight loss world. But it’s not just beneficial for dropping pounds, calorie restriction and longer periods between meals can also promote neurological health and decrease neurodegenerative diseases. Start with trying to extend the time between the last meal of the day and the first meal of the next day. Shoot for 12 hours. This promotes a process called ketogenesis, which can stimulate brain regeneration. But ketogenesis can be tricky and should be practised under the guidance of someone who knows what they’re doing.
Move it or lose it.
Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s dementia and even mild cognitive dysfunction are more prevalent in sedentary populations. Increased activity levels are associated with sharper mental acuity, better memory and an elevated mood. Exercise causes the release of helpful chemical messengers called cytokines as well as chemicals that are responsible for elation called endorphins. These chemicals bathe and rejuvenate the brain. Try to engage in some type of enjoyable movement every day. Walk, run or dance. Whatever floats your boat will surely also float your mood.
Be an efficient sleeper.
The classic mistake people make with their brains, whether it’s dealing with work, school or whatever looming project deadline is that they try to maximize their time by staying up late and/or getting up early. This typically backfires because cognitive abilities decrease with sleep deprivation. Sleep at least seven hours nightly, preferably eight or even nine when possible. The quality of your work will increase while the time it takes to produce such quality work will diminish.