We’ve all had those moments. You can’t think of somebody’s name, you forget your point mid-sentence, or you can’t seem to recall what you ate for lunch yesterday. Maybe you can’t quite focus on what you’re doing, can’t remember a word, or just can’t think straight.
You might call this a “brain fart” or a “senior moment,” but it’s more than that. It’s called brain fog, and it’s a real thing. Brain fog is not an actual medical condition, but is a symptom of other medical conditions or health issues in your body.
In the Fog: What Exactly Is Brain Fog?
It's called brain fog for a reason. Your thoughts might be hazy or muddled, like you’re looking out the window on a foggy day. Everything is a little fuzzy and not quite as sharp or obvious. It might also feel like your mind is moving in slow motion — like trying to swim through Jell-O. It is not a medical diagnosis, but a side effect of other health conditions. It’s also sometimes known as mental fatigue or cognitive impairment, and it’s characterized by: (1, 2, 3)
Inability to multitask
Trouble thinking clearly
In a nutshell, brain fog is essentially when the brain isn’t quite working up to par, even when you think it should be. In more severe cases, it not only affects your ability to think or focus, but can also influence your mood and overall health and well-being. Some other symptoms that often go hand-in-hand with brain fog include: (1, 4)
Lack of motivation
Reading Your Mind: How to Determine If You Have Brain Fog
If you feel like you’re constantly living in a fog, it might be worth having a healthcare provider check you out. This is especially true if you’ve noticed that your brain has been somewhat sluggish for an extended period, or if your brain fog is bad enough that it’s impairing your everyday existence. Everyone forgets things, but if you’re more than just a little scatterbrained and it’s beginning to make it hard for you to function as you normally do, it might be time to seek the advice of a professional.
Because there’s no single way to test for brain fog, it can be difficult to diagnose. It’s more about speaking to your healthcare practitioner and sharing your health information so he or she can better determine if you have any other conditions that often coincide with this condition. This can also help your provider ultimately to know how to treat you.
Your healthcare practitioner may ask you for information about your general health, mental health, and diet, along with any medications or supplements that you might be taking or activities that you’re doing (or not doing) regularly. He or she may decide to do blood work to test for such areas as allergies, infections, inflammation, or nutritional issues. Also, to make sure your blood glucose levels are where they should be and that your kidneys, liver, and thyroid are all functioning up to snuff. If additional testing is needed, your healthcare provider might order X-rays, an MRI, or a CT scan.
If you’re wondering what these tests are looking for, there are many health issues that could be a red flag, because brain fog is a symptom of so many different conditions and health concerns.
What’s on Your Mind? The Causes of Brain Fog
Lots of factors and health issues sometimes lead to brain fog. And it’s not just all in your head — it’s in your entire body! Here are some of the most common causes:
Nutrition plays such an important role in the health of your body. Therefore, what you eat can help boost your brain power just as easily as it can lead your brain to slack off a bit. For example, vitamin B-12 is known to help your mind function properly. So, if you don’t get enough B-12 in your diet, your brain could suffer. Vitamin D is another nutrient that can kick your brain into high gear, but if you don’t have enough of it, you may find yourself in the fog. (5, 6, 7)
In addition, people who have allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances to certain foods may discover that their brain gets a little foggy when they eat those particular foods. A prime example of this is gluten. Those with a gluten intolerance often experience brain fog after consuming gluten. (8)
Brain fog is a symptom of many different health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, diabetes, fibromyalgia, liver congestion, lupus, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. The specific cause depends on the particular disease or condition. For example, in the case of diabetes, the brain needs sugar to function. Therefore, uncontrolled blood glucose levels can directly affect the brain and cause brain fog. (1, 2, 3, 9)
Any condition that causes inflammation is also liable to cause brain fog. This is because when your cells and tissues are inflamed, your brain finds it harder to send out its signals via your neurons. The brain can get tired from trying and start to slow down. (3)
We’ve all heard of “pregnancy brain” or “baby brain,” when pregnant women suddenly become forgetful or easily distracted. This is more than just thinking all baby, all the time. It’s also a result of hormonal changes in the body that affect the brain. As their progesterone and estrogen levels increase during pregnancy, women may experience brain fog. On the other end of the spectrum, an estrogen level that’s too low can also cause the memory and concentration issues associated with mental fatigue. That’s why mental fatigue is very common among menopausal women. (10, 11)
Most medications come with at least some side effects, and brain fog is a fairly common one. Whether prescription or over-the-counter, many drugs can cause issues with memory and clear thinking. Drugs that help you sleep better and fight pain are especially guilty of causing mental exhaustion. If you believe your fuzzy thinking may be a result of a medication that you’re using, talk to your healthcare provider about switching your meds or lowering your dosage. (12, 13)
Mitochondria are little organelles within your cells. They work as mighty powerhouses, providing energy to your cells that translates to energy for your tissues, systems, and entire body. Like most cells in your body, your brain cells rely on mitochondria for energy. In fact, the more mitochondria a cell has, the more important it is to the body and the more energy it requires. Our brains have over 10,000 mitochondria per cell, and some brain cells have as many as 2 million mitochondria. Anything that gets in the way of those brain mitochondria functioning at their full capacity — including heavy metals, inflammation, and oxidative stress — can reduce your brain’s energy level and cause mental fatigue. (14, 15)
Overthinking doesn’t just mean spending hours pondering a simple decision like what to wear to dinner or which of your programs to binge watch, for example. In this case, overthinking is actually using your brain to the point of fatiguing it. Just like any other part of the body that you work too hard, if you use your brain excessively, it’s going to get tired. That’s why when you’re cramming for a test or reading a long book, your thoughts might suddenly become cloudy, and you could lose your ability to retrieve or retain information. If you’re carrying too heavy of a “mental load,” this can lead to brain exhaustion. (16)
If you’re alive, you have parasites. And some parasites are nastier than others. For example, there are trillions of little microbes living in your gut that are in constant communication with your brain. That means that they can affect your emotions and behaviors, and they can certainly cause your brain to slow down or keep you from thinking clearly or remembering things. If things get a little imbalanced in your body and the parasites get the upper hand, this can alter your mood, impair brain function, and cause depression. (17, 18)
Similarly, because gluten affects the small intestine first — where those bacteria thrive — eating gluten can cause brain fog for someone with a sensitivity. The same is true of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, which is another condition that commonly causes brain fog. (19, 20, 21)
No matter where they are in your body, parasites, including black mold and other bacteria, suck your body’s nutrients to survive and release chemicals and toxins into your bloodstream that often flow to your brain. It’s important to keep the parasites inside you in check and kill them off. But keep in mind that as you do so, your brain fog may temporarily worsen at first. This is because you’re effectively angering the parasites, which frequently release extra toxins and chemicals in protest as they die. But that will decrease over time as more parasites are flushed out.
Stress causes all sorts of health issues. Not only can it lead to high blood pressure, affect your immune system, and mess up your mental health, but it also sends hormones — including adrenaline and norepinephrine — shooting through your body. This, in turn, causes your body to think something is wrong and go into survival mode, pulling energy away from your brain to deal with what it perceives as a problem elsewhere in the body. The lack of attention and care your body gives to the brain during these stressful situations affects brain function and ultimately results in brain fog. Stress also simply exhausts your body, which means mental fatigue as much as physical. (22, 23)
Toxins and heavy metals
We live in a toxic world. Toxins, chemicals, and heavy metals are everywhere — in the food we eat, the products we use, the water we drink, even the air we breathe. Considering that we’re surrounded by such toxins as aluminum, arsenic, lead, and even mercury, it’s very hard not to end up bringing them into our bodies. When these substances are inside us, they can have a slew of unpleasant effects on the body and health, brain fog being just one of them. In fact, mercury has something of an affinity for the brain and tends to head to your head as directly as it can. This affects your brain function, resulting in the difficulties thinking and remembering. (24, 25)
Even though the body is designed to fight off and eliminate toxins, chemicals and metals slowly accumulate, eventually overpowering your body’s natural defenses and breaking down your protective barriers. There’s strength in numbers, and you can end up with many toxins inside your body, allowing them to win out. This is why detoxing is so crucial to your health. Just remember that as you detox, bringing those toxins into your bloodstream again as you chase them away may aggravate your brain fog temporarily. It should improve, however, as the toxins are removed.
Changing Your Mind: How to Alleviate Your Brain Fog
Ready to clear away those cobwebs in your brain? Happily, brain fog is very often treatable. Even if you aren’t able to get rid of it entirely, you can help lessen its impact on your health and everyday life. Here are some things to try to reduce or eliminate this fog of mental exhaustion and get your sharp-as-a-tack mind back again!
Drainage is the first step toward detoxing. “Drainage” just means keeping your body’s pathways (including the bile, colon, kidneys, liver, lungs, and lymphatic system) clean, clear, and open. The brain even has its very own private drainage system, known as the glymphatic system. With successful drainage, chemicals, toxins, and other substances can pass through the body and ultimately be eliminated naturally. Removing those toxins can really improve brain function and cut down on brain fog. (26)
Catch some Zzzs
Getting enough sleep — between seven and nine hours per night — can help your body function better and improve your overall health. Your body needs rest to be able to do what it needs to do, including optimizing brain function. As a matter of fact, the brain rejuvenates and eliminates its toxins, especially when you’re sleeping.
On the other hand, a lack of sleep can cause your body (and mind) to fatigue, affect your ability to think and concentrate, and prevent you from having the energy to fight off parasites, toxins, and health issues that could cause brain fog. (27, 28)
It’s good to clear your body of all the nasty chemicals, parasites, and toxins that can be impairing your health and that might be at the root of your brain fog. There are many natural herbs that can help you in this process. Your mental fatigue might intensify in the early stages of your detox as your body attempts to adjust to the sudden load of toxins that you’re stirring up. But that will subside, and removing all that bad stuff can only help both your body and mind in the long run.
Eat some brain foods
Although certain foods can aggravate brain fog, other foods can make your brain happier and healthier and can help avoid mental fatigue. A good diet helps all your body’s systems function at their best. Diets rich in fruits, healthy fats (like omega-3s), protein, vegetables, and vitamins and minerals are especially good for the brain. These foods can also prevent inflammation, promote healing, and increase energy. (7, 29)
Physical activity is another way to reduce brain fog and its effects. Staying active helps your body stay healthy, which promotes a healthy brain. Even mild exercise, such as taking a short walk, produces adrenaline, cytokines (involved in cell “communication” and immune support), energy, and mood-enhancing endorphins. These all go to your head, encouraging brain activity and memory. (30, 31)
Go with your gut
Good health starts in your gut. Not only is your diet a crucial part of your health journey, but there’s also a direct link between your gut and your brain that is known as the gut-brain axis. That means that what goes on in your gut directly affects your brain. Some health practitioners recommend intermittent fasting, which can ultimately encourage brain restoration through a process known as ketogenesis. But more importantly, make sure your gut stays healthy, unclogged (pooping is a must!), and has all the elements it needs to keep things moving. This can help clear away that pesky brain fog. (18, 32, 33)
You already know that stress can play mischief with your general health, so it stands to reason that keeping your stress levels at a minimum will keep you healthier and boost your brain power. Of course, avoiding stress is easier said than done, especially in today’s hectic world. You can’t just flip a switch and turn it off, and there’s nothing worse than when someone tells you to “Just calm down!” when you’re in the throes of a stressful situation. A few tips to keep stress at bay include:
Trying not to take on more than you can handle or overdoing things;
Giving yourself plenty of breaks and getting lots of rest;
Performing some calming activities, such as meditation or tai chi.
Steer clear of alcohol and nicotine
Drinking and smoking can cause inflammation and other changes in your brain that affect how well it operates. Cut down on your intake of these substances to stay at your sharpest. Watch how much caffeine you consume, and try to keep it under control. But if you’re used to alcohol and cigarettes in excess, just don’t stop them cold turkey — withdrawal is also known to cause cognitive impairment. (34, 35, 36, 37, 38)
If you’re like most people, you’re probably addicted to your devices. But whether you’re working, checking email, or watching cat videos, staring at a computer or phone screen for too long can cause eye strain and tire your mind. And too much blue light exposure from your devices too close to bedtime can actually confuse your internal body clock and mess up your sleep patterns. This only makes mental fatigue worse.
In addition, electromagnetic fields from smartphones can block your brain’s electrical impulses and cause the body to produce more cortisol, which is your main stress hormone. And you already know the woes of stress on the brain. (28, 39, 40, 41)
The solution? If you can’t or don’t want to shut down your devices entirely, still try to take several breaks during your ongoing screen time. Get up and walk around or focus your eyes on something else for a short time. Or invest in a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses that can help protect your eyes from those sinister blue lights coming off your screen. (42, 43)
Use your head
The same way that you’d exercise any other part of your body to whip it into better shape, you can do some brain exercises to strengthen your brain. Anything that challenges you mentally and engages your mind can help, such as doing “brain teaser” puzzles or working on a crossword. Increasing your vocabulary, learning a new activity, or playing cards or other games can improve your memory and keep your mind active and alert. This can stop your brain from becoming lazy and slowing down. (44, 45)
Fight the Fog
Your ultimate goal is to be healthy and clear up whatever’s causing your brain fog so that you can think straight and remember things. Although you may never get to the point where you’re able to memorize all your contacts’ numbers in your phone or recite the dictionary, you’ll still likely see improvements in your mental prowess over time. Meanwhile, as long as you’re living with it, here are some useful tips to make it more bearable.
Jot things down: If your brain fog makes you prone to forgetfulness, keep lots of notes. Add things to your digital calendar or mark them in your planner if you’re old school. Make lists. Write down appointment times. This way, you’re less likely to forget something important.
Check and double-check: Before you send that email, read it again. Twice. Before you log off your computer for the day, check that you didn’t overlook something you needed to do. Make sure that you’re not supposed to be somewhere that slipped your mind. Brain fog not only affects your memory, but it can also sometimes make your usual activities, such as writing an email, come out a little confusing. Verifying both your work and your commitments can avoid any mix-ups.
Try journaling: If you’re not sure what’s causing your brain fog, make a list of all your activities, the foods you’ve eaten, medications and supplements you’re taking, and so on. Do this for up to a week. It might help you pinpoint what’s triggering or aggravating the issue so that you can better address the problem and know how to treat it.
Don’t make any life-altering decisions: If you feel like you’re having a brain fog flare-up and you’re not thinking clearly, avoid making any big decisions or committing to anything significant at those times. Wait until your brain clears, and reevaluate your choices before you get yourself into a situation that you’ll regret.
Don’t be ashamed: People are often uncomfortable or embarrassed when they are having memory problems or feel a little off. But mental fatigue happens to so many people for so many reasons, and there’s nothing wrong with you if you experience its symptoms. Although you might be inclined to try to hide it or cover it up, fessing up can work in your favor. People can help you by reminding you of things or assisting you with tasks with which you might be struggling. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
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