Got brain fog? You’re not alone. Though it’s not a medical term per se, it is an extremely common affliction. Trouble is, there are a number of less-than-stellar habits that contribute to it and can make you feel like you’re ‘losing your edge,’ or, in more extreme cases, your mind. No matter how significant the fog is or isn’t, it’s still unnerving when it’s your brain that’s not functioning as seamlessly as you’ve come to expect. So, the question is, what’s triggering your brain fog? And, what can you do to lift it and think clearly again? The answer to both questions is ‘plenty,’ so let’s take a closer look at how to help your brain function much, much better. Here’s where to start:
A foggy brain is an imbalanced one.
Imbalances anywhere in the body will impact how well your organs and systems function, very much including the brain. But with the brain, it usually doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an M.D. for that matter, to recognize the symptoms of imbalance – sufferers experience the fog. They’re conscious that their brains are not working as they should. And depending on the frequency and severity of the symptoms, that can be extremely unsettling. Sufferers wonder, ‘Am I losing my mind?’ ‘Is it early Alzheimer’s?’ In most cases, the answer is no, it’s probably not a life-altering disease, but more likely a condition you can clear up if you put your mind to it (and your body too).
Brain fog has many faces.
Chances are, if you’re closing in on your 40s, you may have begun to experience occasional moments or periods of brain fog. Or, if you’ve had a bout of COVID-19, you may also be dealing with some degree of it, one of the infection’s common lingering effects. Though everyone may experience it somewhat differently, the symptoms that typically fall under the brain fog umbrella include:
- Feelings of low mood, apathy, or mild depression
- Mental sluggishness, lack of clarity or ‘fog’
- Problems with focus, concentration and/or motivation
- Difficulty processing or remembering information
- Reduced ability to apply logic or problem-solve
- Challenges with word selection or retrieval
- Poor sleep, disrupted sleep or difficulty falling or staying asleep
Brain fog has many causes.
There are a number of possible culprits, so doing a little detective work to rule out some of them is a good place to start. First up, as the brain and the rest of you are intimately connected, begin by taking a hard look at what’s going on in your body and in your life. Among the big fogger-uppers:
- Lifestyle issues – such as chronic stress; poor sleep or lack of it; not enough movement/sedentary lifestyle. Even something as simple as dehydration can have a big negative impact.
- Poor diet – your brain needs healthy nutrients, including fat, to function optimally, so a diet deep in sugar and almost nutrient-free junk and processed foods simply won’t deliver the good stuff your brain needs to thrive and stay fog-free.
- Alcohol use – alcohol dulls mental acuity, in part by causing inflammation in the brain, and reducing the communication between the neurons that are responsible for mental sharpness.
- Vitamin deficiencies – too low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids; low levels of magnesium and vitamin C may also play a role.
- Gut microbiome issues –a poor diet or frequent use of antibiotics can leave you with a gut that’s light on healthy strains of bacteria, which in turn can throw off the gut’s production of neurochemicals like serotonin which help regulate mood and stave off the fog.
- Hormonal imbalances – shifting hormone levels and imbalances, which often occur with menstruation, pregnancy and/or menopause and aging.
- Certain conditions – such as low thyroid function, autoimmune disorders, depression, high blood pressure, low blood sugar issues, Lyme disease and/or co-infections, viral infections (such as COVID-19; Epstein-Bar;), neurological maladies like Alzheimer’s and dementia, etc.
- Certain medications (OTC and prescribed) – such as those used to treat allergies, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders. Chemotherapy is also a common contributor to brain fog in cancer patients.
- Chronic inflammation– research indicates that brain fog is a frequent side effect of chronic, low level inflammation.
- Toxic mold– it’s often overlooked but brain fog is a common issue for roughly 25% of the populationwith a (usually genetic) predisposition to mold toxicity.
You can lift the fog.
The good news about your brain fog is, like the atmospheric kind, you can break through and get to a sunnier place. After you’ve reviewed any medical conditions you might have and meds you might be taking, the next step is to focus on getting serious about implementing key lifestyle upgrades to help get your brain firing on all cylinders again. The best de-fogging protocol? Treat as many of the possible underlying causes as possible:
- Get a basic work-up – to rule out hormone imbalances, vitamin deficiencies or medical conditions. But whatever is found or not found, you will have to get your act together. Unless you ‘feed your head’ with all the health-supportive behaviors in the toolbox, that fog’s gonna linger. So, at minimum, we’re talking upgrading your diet, exercise, sleep habits, and taking better care of your gut.
- Rehab your diet – purge sugar and grains and stick to a low carb diet. Pass on processed foods, like meats, sweet treats, chips and anything with MSG, aspartame or other sweeteners. Load up on wholesome, nutrient-dense produce, preferably organic or from the farmers market, and responsibly sourced animal proteins. Not sure where to start? Take a look my easy-to-implement tips for building the ‘perfect plate’
- Water your brain – a foggy brain is often a dehydrated one, so drink a lot more water every day – and ideally, little to no alcohol. After all, your brain is roughly 80% water, and water acts almost like a nutrient for it, so even light dehydration makes it tougher for your brain cells to maintain the delicate water balance needed to keep it functioning optimally. Add alcohol to the mix – it dehydrates and interferes with the way brain cells communicate – and your fog will get even thicker.
- Get your gut in order – digestive travails like constipation, bloating, leaky gut, IBS, SIBO or SIFO all impact the brain, so work on lifting your fog by healing your gut with my gut-healing primer.
- Upgrade your sleep – a lousy night’s sleep is the fast track to brain fog, so train yourself to sleep like a baby by following the plan outlined in 11 Ways to Win at Sleep, or for a deeper dive, to truly master the art of great sleep, pick up a copy of my book Better Sleep, Better You.
- Bust your stress on the daily – and by that we mean get into a meditation groove, not only to preserve and protect your overall brain health, but to also help lift the fog you maybe be experiencing right now. Studies indicate that meditation actually physically changes the brain in ways that have a positive impact on focus, attention span and clarity, which means less fog.
- Move more and keep moving – it’s no secret that there’s a strong link between physical activity and brain health and cognitive function, so, don’t just sit there if you want to chase the fog away! While any type of movement is great, if you’re short on time, research indicates that high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, delivers some immediate benefits to cognitive function, according to U.S. not to mention those always welcome, mood-elevating endorphins.
- Top up your vitamin and minerals tank – the more support you give to your brain the better. If brain fog is slowing your roll, in addition to the healthy behaviors noted above, add some supportive supplements to the mix. For many folks, filling in the nutritional gaps with brain-lovers – like omega 3’s, magnesium, B Complex, Vitamin D, NMN, adaptogens and MCT oil – is another easy-to-incorporate way to help lift the fog. An additional treatment option that my patients have had great results with, is Synapsin, a nasal spray available through compounding pharmacies.
- Give your brain a break – just about everyone spends too much time staring at screens. And though they may be a fact of life, they are a major source of mental exhaustion. Taking more screen time breaks throughout the day helps your brain ‘clear out the cobwebs,’ and allow it to rest and reset.
- Hold the mold – if there is a possibility that mold could be a factor. For a few weeks, try laying off foods which contain mold or fungi, which, if you’re predisposed, may be making your brain fog worse. On that list would be foods like dairy, mushrooms, dressings, condiments, certain types of nuts (like peanuts, walnuts) and dried fruits to name a few.
A final thought: if despite best efforts, your brain fog lingers, or you don’t get the results you’re looking for, you may need a more in depth check in with a functional medicine doctor to investigate further. They can perform a diagnostic workup which may help identify the trouble spots, and help you develop a healing plan.