Have you ever felt like your head has been stuffed with cotton wool? The unofficial term for those mental fuzzies is brain fog. If you feel mentally exhausted and you have trouble focusing, brain fog may be the culprit.
Here’s how to clear away those mental cobwebs and flood your brain with fresh energy.
What is Brain Fog?
Brain fog is not a medical term; rather it describes a type of mental fatigue that makes it hard to concentrate and remember things. Your mind might feel sluggish and slow, like it’s fumbling around in the dark.
Symptoms of brain fog include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Low energy
- Mental exhaustion
- Taking longer to complete simple tasks
- Memory loss
Causes of Brain Fog
Hormonal changes can cause brain fog, particularly fluctuations in female sex hormones. Ever heard of “pregnancy brain”? The surge in estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy can make it difficult to think clearly and can cause memory issues.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278262613001668?via%3Dihub
Memory problems and foggy thinking are also common during menopause, when estrogen levels drop.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6843314/
Estrogen and progesterone levels decrease during the second half of the menstrual cycle, so women may also notice brain fog in the days leading up to their period.
Research shows a link between brain fog and inflammation. In one study, 20 male participants were given a salmonella typhoid vaccine that caused temporary inflammation. Results showed that inflammation lowered alertness, which could explain why people with chronic medical conditions or who are obese often suffer from brain fog.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191115190337.htm
Brain fog is also common after recovering from COVID-19. Researchers who analyzed the brains of people who died of COVID found inflammation and high levels of inflammatory proteins, particularly CCL11, which impairs neurogenesis — the formation of new brain cells — and cognitive function.https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.01.07.475453v
Your brain fog could be a symptom of stress. Chronic stress can affect memory, attention, and mood, and in some cases even rewire the brain.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/
Cortisol — the stress hormone — also weakens the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in cognitive functions like decision-making and problem-solving. When this region of the brain isn’t working optimally, it can cloud your thinking.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907136/
Food allergies or sensitivities can cause brain fog. Common culprits include dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, and peanuts.
Processed and refined foods can also fog up your brain. You may be familiar with the post-lunch slump, which typically occurs after eating a meal high in refined carbohydrates, like white bread or pasta. These foods give you a burst of energy, but they quickly lead to a blood sugar crash. The result — fuzzy thinking and mental fatigue.
Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities may be particularly prone to brain fog after eating wheat or foods containing gluten.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7454984/
Lack of sleep
Numerous studies show that sleep improves memory and reduces mental fatigue.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4651462/
When you sleep, you give your brain the chance to restore and recharge itself, and clear away toxic waste that’s accumulated during the day.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4651462/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24136944/ Sleep deprivation causes these toxins to build up, impairing brain function and making it difficult to focus and remember simple things.
Sleep deprivation also interferes with your neurons’ ability to communicate with each other. In one study, researchers likened the cognitive effects of poor sleep to that of driving drunk.https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.4433
If you’re struggling with hazy thinking, you may want to check your medicine cabinet. Certain medications can affect brain function and cause brain fog.
Medications to watch out for include:
- Benzodiazepines: A class of sedative drugs commonly used to treat anxiety, benzodiazepines can lead to memory issues. Familiar names include Xanax and Valium.
- Pain medications: Opioid analgesics have been linked with impaired memory.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18379759/
- Sleep aids: Some sleep drugs like Benadryl contain diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that can cause memory problems and raise the risk of dementia.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25621434/
Brain fog can also be caused by cancer treatments. Chemo brain refers to the cloudy thinking and memory issues common after receiving chemotherapy.
How to Clear Brain Fog
Load Up on Good Fats
The nerves in your brain are covered by an insulating layer known as myelin, composed of fat and protein. Along with protecting these delicate nerve fibers, myelin allows brain cells to communicate more quickly with one another. When myelin is weak or damaged, communication between neurons slows down or stops altogether, causing cognitive dysfunction like attention and learning issues, or worse, chronic conditions like multiple sclerosis.
Myelin contains high levels of saturated fat, so you want to make sure you’re getting enough saturated fat in your diet to keep myelin strong.
Eat lots of fatty fish like wild salmon and sardines, grass-fed meat, pastured butter, and eggs to banish brain fog and increase brain power.
Get High-quality Sleep
Getting enough quality sleep is one of the most powerful ways to beat brain fog.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to how much sleep you should be getting – some people need 8 hours or more, while others feel just fine after 5 hours of sleep. You’ll know if you’re getting enough sleep by how you feel during the day – if you’re mentally alert and energized, then you’ve probably hit the sleep sweet spot.
How to sleep better to shift brain fog:
- Turn off all electronics two hours before going to bed. Screens emit blue light, which tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime, making it difficult to fall asleep.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2717723/
- Invest in blackout blinds — the darker the room, the easier it is for your brain to switch off and not get distracted by excess light.
- If you drink alcohol, it’s best to drink four hours or more before bedtime.https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/42/11/zsz136/5535848
Take Brain Supplements
Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs,” are a category of supplements that help sweep away mental cobwebs, sharpening your thinking and increasing mental energy.
There is a huge range of nootropics. Here are some to consider:
- Zynamite is made up of 60% or more of mangiferin, a powerful antioxidant found in mango leaves. Studies show that Zynamite strengthens synaptic connections between brain cells, boosting memory and cognitive performance.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32717999/
- Theacrine, found in a Chinese tea plant, can increase alertness, improve focus, and enhance mental energy, especially when taken with caffeine.https://neuropedia.com/theacrine-benefits-and-effects/
- L-theanine is found primarily in green and black teas. Research shows it can lower mental stress and increase focus.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16930802/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16930802/
You may be familiar with the feeling of stumbling through the workday after drinking alcohol the night before. Alcohol can lead to fuzzy thinking, slower reaction time, and mental fatigue. Some research shows that even small amounts of alcohol can negatively impact cognitive function and lead to brain fog.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625995/
In a 30-year British study, moderate drinking led to a shrinkage of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory.https://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j2353 The more participants drank, the more their gray matter shrank. Another study found that no amount of alcohol was safe for brain health.https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.05.10.21256931v1.full.pdf
If you do choose to drink, opt for filtered and distilled drinks, such as vodka, whiskey, or gin.
Regular workouts can protect against neurodegeneration and increase brain plasticity – your brain’s ability to reorganize and re-wire its neural pathways. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934999/
In one study, six months of twice weekly aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus in older women.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4508129/ A previous study from the same researchers found that both resistance training and aerobic exercise improved memory in older women.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20101012/
Exercise that increases your heart rate and causes you to sweat also floods your brain with fresh oxygen and blood, creating new brain cells and boosting mental performance.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32404355/
If your brain fog persists even after making these changes, talk to your doctor. They may order blood tests to check for vitamin deficiencies or hormonal imbalances.