Updated: Oct 22
From walking into a room and not remembering why, to other memory problems, lack of mental clarity, poor concentration and inability to focus, brain fog can be a real murky problem.
I have been one to live by the post it note, frantically scrawled webinar records, and of course the multiple reading lists & bookmarks. My definition of trauma might include someone closing my open tabs, eek!
But when it goes beyond the need for some memory strategies and you start to put the milk in the bath and the shampoo in the fridge, forget the name of your best friend as you are greeting them and struggle putting sentences together, you might just wonder if this fluffy brain syndrome is in need of some attention.
So what are the symptoms of Brain Fog?
Additional to those already mentioned you may also experience:
· Mental fatigue or sleepiness
· Mind wandering
· Slow reactions
· An inability to find words to express your thoughts
· A feeling of being disconnected from reality
· Loss of motivation
· A feeling of overwhelm
Brain fog is something we will all experience in some form. But what causes it and can we do anything to improve symptoms if they become severe?
The Common Causes of Brain Fog
Stress can lead to numerous symptoms including mental fatigue. If your brain is exhausted then you find it hard to recall, focus, reason and it can affect your perception and motivation. You may have trouble putting thoughts together or they may seem hazy or difficult to grasp.
Are you trying to juggle too many
balls or please too many people? Living life in the fast lane not only leads to more stress but can leave you fatigued. There is only so much the brain can give its attention to. Task switching leads to an increased mental demand.
Exercise can help manage stress with mental benefits of a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, the brain’s natural chemical painkillers and elevators of mood. (4)
This relates to low intensity exercise but it is worth noting that moderate to high intensity exercise such as HIIT, heavy resistance training or power lifting and some plyometrics will provoke increase in circulating cortisol levels. This is why a programme that is structured to target the bespoke needs of the individual with enough rest and recovery is so important to get the maximum benefits from training.
See later in this article for information on Nootropics and Adaptogens to help combat stress.
You have probably heard of baby brain? Or maybe your cant remember! Levels of hormones progesterone and oestrogen increase during pregnancy. This can affect memory and some may experience short term cognitive impairment.
As women start Perimenopause and then go through menopause a drop in oestrogen levels can cause forgetfulness, muddled or cloudy thinking and in some cases anxiety related to these hormonal changes will contribute to cognitive symptoms (see stress above)
Low testosterone levels can impact cognitive function too leading to brain fog, decreased mental clarity, difficulty with memory and concentration. Men may experience this in Andropause which causes a gradual decline in testosterone levels.
Anabolic steroid abuse Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are steroidal androgens which include natural androgens such as male sex hormone testosterone or could be synthetic to mimic the action of the endogenous male hormone. Long term misuse and abuse of this could lead hypogonadism which can have a profound impact on the reproductive system with the majority of AAS users found to have low gonadotropin and testosterone levels, even after the discontinuation of AAS. (5)
You should aim for 8 to 9 hours of quality sleep every night as poor sleep amount or disturbed sleep will interfere with your brain functioning. It is during sleep that short term memory is stored as long-term memory. Recent research is that Stage 3 (deep non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep or Slow Wave Sleep) may be especially important for the improvement of memory retention and recall.
So, if you are struggling to learn new information or remember what you did yesterday, then make sure you are getting enough sleep as it is vital for the improvement of memory retention and recall, not to mention recovery and repair from physical activity.
Diet can contribute to brain fog. Your brain uses Omega 3 to build brain and nerve cells which are essential for learning and memory. Good sources of Omega-3 are cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines. Also nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts.
Antioxidants act against oxidative stress and inflammation which can both contribute to aging and. Neurogenerative diseases. A few examples of good sources are blueberries, curcumin (found in turmeric) and broccoli which is packed with antioxidants and also Vitamin K, a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential for forming sphingolipids, a type of fat that is in brain cells. Pumpkin seeds contain powerful antioxidants, Zinc for nerve signalling, Magnesium essential for learning and memory, Copper for controlling nerve signals and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disorders (1) and Iron which a deficiency can contribute to impaired brain function.
Dark chocolate has brain booting compounds including caffeine, flavonoids and antioxidants. Dark chocolate has a 70% greater cocoa content giving benefits that are not in milk chocolate (10-50% cocoa). The flavonoids in dark chocolate gather in the area of the brain that deals with learning and memory and may help enhance memory and slow mental decline.
Vitamin C found in citrus fruits, acerola cherries, kiwi, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables among other sources is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight off free radicals that can damage brain cells.
Vitamin D is a fat soluble nutrient essential for immune system function, brain health and more. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to feeling more depressed for which brain fog can be one of the symptoms. Being able to absorb vitamin D from sunlight keeps levels topped up but if you live somewhere where there is not much sunshine this may be inadequate. Don’t assume that being out in the sun is enough. If you are completely covered in protective UV clothing and creams in summer and waterproofs and hats in winter, you will still not get enough!
A small study in 42 postmenopausal women who were low in vitamin D found that those who supplemented with 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day for 1 year performed better in learning and memory tests than those who took 600-IU or 4,000-IU doses (2). More research is needed but as Vitamin D promotes bone health, we should ensure we get enough anyway so supplementing may be necessary.
B Vitamins supports healthy brain function and low levels can lead to symptoms of brain fog. Studies have shown improved cognition with vitamin B12 supplementation and a further study of 39000 people found low levels of B12 were associated with poorer attention and memory. Low levels of vitamin B6 and folate may worsen symptoms. A high-quality B complex supplement may help reduce the risk of brain fog symptoms. Food sources of B Vitamins are:
· Salmon & Trout
· Leafy greens
· Liver and organ meats, nearly 3000% of the DV for B1
· Chicken and turkey, especially high in B3 and B6
· Sunflower seeds
· Nutritional Yeast (363% of the B12 DV) and Brewer’s Yeast
· Fortified cereal
· Oysters, clams and blue mussels. Clams give over 4000% of the DV!
If you have a food allergy or sensitivity then brain fog may develop after eating certain trigger foods such as aspartame, peanuts and dairy.
Can cause inflammation, fatigue or changes in blood glucose levels leading to mental cognition impairment.
Conditions that may contribute to brain fog are:
autoimmune diseases, like lupus, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis
Medications can cause known side effects including brain fog so if you are experiencing this, talk to your GP or health professional.
Nootropics and Adaptogens
Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs” are a diverse group of medicinal substances whose action improves human thinking, learning, and memory, especially in cases where these functions are impaired. Nootropics are used in acute or subacute conditions for treating memory, consciousness, and learning disorders. (6)
Whilst these would not really be relevant to a mild case of brain fog there are some classes of Nootropic that may help such as:
Caffeine undoubtably the world’s most widely used psychoactive substance. Naturally found in coffee, cocoa, tea, kola nuts and guarana, it can also be taken as a supplement. It works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain to make you feel less tired, increases your alertness and decreases your reaction time.
L-Theanine a naturally occurring amino acid found in tea that can increase feelings of calm and increase creativity. It is often used in combination with caffeine for greater effectiveness.
Creatine an amino acid which binds with phosphate creating a molecule to quickly use as fuel (a topic for discussion in a later blog). This increased availability of energy for your cells including those in your brain is linked to short term memory and reasoning skills. Doses of 5 grams per day have been shown to be safe in the long term for this much researched supplement.
Bacopa Monnieri is an ancient herb used to enhance brain function, speed up information processing, reduce reaction time and improve memory. It contains bacosides which protect your brain from oxidative stress and improve signalling in your hippocampus where memories are processed.
Adaptogens are certain herbs or mushrooms thought to help your body adjust to physical, chemical or biological stress by stimulating your body’s stress-protection response and restore “homeostasis”
There are at least 70 types of herbal plants considered adaptogens. Here are some linked to stress relief:
Ashwagandha, an evergreen shrub grown in India, the Middle East and regions of Africa. Research suggests it may help anxiety. (7)
Rhodiola Rosea an adaptogenic herb that helps your body handle stress more effectively. Several studies have found that Rhodiola Rosea has been shown to reduce mental fatigue and increase feelings of well-being.
Tulsi (Holy Basil) may reduce physical and mental stress, stress related anxiety, depression and improve memory and thinking.
American Ginseng may boost memory, reaction time, calmness and immune system.
Adaptogens are not recommended for women during pregnancy.
Can cause symptoms of brain fog. Many of the symptoms of inattentive or combination ADHD are the same as those with brain fog. Sleep problems and anxiety are particularly common in people with ADHD so practicing good sleep hygiene is important. For some, Melatonin is prescribed to aid with going to sleep at a suitable time. Lack of sleep can worsen symptoms of anxiety and brain fog.
Cognitive symptoms respond well to treatment, the first line medication include:
· Stimulants such as Adderall and Methylphenidate
· Non-stimulants such as atomoxetine and nortriptyline
Dehydration can worsen brain fog symptoms so it is important to stay well hydrated during the day. Some people with ADHD forget to drink and eat enough or can be demand avoidant about doing so.
Regular exercise boosts executive functioning which helps you to plan, goal set, prioritise, focus and follow instructions. All forms of exercise are beneficial and cardio, even walking, can help in the short term and have long lasting beneficial effects. Sometimes a movement break may be all that is needed to help with the symptoms of brain fog. A connection to nature and the outdoors can also help alleviate symptoms, maybe a bit of adrenaline and “dopamining” may help but for some the preferred choice for a soft reset is quiet time, resting.
If you are experiencing persistent lack of mental clarity and it is concerning you, visit your GP so they can identify if the cause is an underlying condition.
What can you do to help yourself reduce the risk of brain fog?
Well, this depends on the cause but assuming there is not a more serious problem then you can work on these home remedies:
· Exercise - Physical activity can help your cognitive function and improve your ability to think, learn, problem-solve and restore an emotional balance. It can improve memory and help reduce anxiety or depression. Regular physical activity can help reduce your risk of cognitive decline, including dementia (3)
· Aim for 8-9 hours of quality sleep a night
· Manage stress
· Practice mindfulness, meditation and breathwork
· Increase your intake of protein, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats
· Limit alcohol and caffeine
· Find and enjoyable hobby
Remember we can all have the occasional off day when we just struggle to concentrate, have any clarity of thought and our recall is poor but if it is becoming a regular problem or bothering you then consider improving the above or going to your GP for further tests and advice.
1, 2 Pubmed central