Mental 

What is Brain Fog? Causes, Signs, and Solutions

February 13, 2021 6 min read

Woman looking at blank notebook

Dr. Sandra El Hajj - MSc, N-MD, DHSc

Have you felt particularly forgetful, sluggish, or easily distracted lately? If so, brain fog may be to blame. 

As personal and professional responsibilities stack up, it's normal to feel a little fuzzy every now and then. Many assume brain fog is reserved for older individuals, but the hustle and bustle of modern life has expanded the condition across age groups.

What is brain fog?

It may start as a feeling of reduced sharpness and increased distractions. Initially, you might attribute it to a lack of exercise or sleep. You take a small break, but your symptoms persist and even start intensifying. This is what doctors refer to as brain fog—a state with no technical diagnosis but a group of interwoven symptoms. 

Dr. Gayatri Devi from Lenox Hill Hospital in New York can explain the physiology behind these symptoms. She explores brain fog through a neurological lens. 

The nervous system contains trillions of neurons, with around 20,000 that secrete orexin, a neuropeptide in charge of keeping you awake and alert. If even a small number of these neurons are damaged, it can lead to disorientation and stress. As a result, you may feel incapable of carrying on with simple conversations, multitasking at work, or completing tasks.

Causes and Symptoms of Brain Fog

Brain fog has long puzzled the medical community, not being its own medical condition but rather a symptom of many. Those who struggle with focus, memory, and problem-solving abilities describe themselves as having brain fog. 

While there is no exact root of the issue, scientists have been able to identify a few possible causes. 

Stress & Depression

Life can bring plenty of stress, and it's normal to feel blue every once in a while. But if you experience a cluster of bad feelings all at once—like being sad, anxious, depressed, and overly stressed for more than a couple of weeks—it can affect your thoughts and mental clarity.

Associated symptoms

If stress and depression are causing your brain fog, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Feeling hopeless, worried, and sad
  • Constantly feeling guilt and helplessness
  • Losing interest in the activities that used to bring you joy
  • Not having enough energy
  • Unexpected weight changes
  • Not getting enough sleep

For this trigger, adopting a proper wellness plan with a highly nutritious diet can help reduce your brain fog. 

Lack of sleep

Your body needs rest to recharge at all levels. To be fully functioning the following morning, seven to eight hours of sleep is a necessity. During these hours, your brain recovers from the day to operate more efficiently when you wake. Not being able to sleep can be caused by sleep disorders like sleep apnea. 

Associated symptoms

When you're not getting enough sleep, you're more likely to experience the following symptoms:

  • Constant exhaustion
  • Snoring at night
  • Waking up as if you gasping for air
  • Having a continuous headache
  • Feeling dryness in your mouth in the morning

When a lack of sleep is contributing to brain fog, focus on establishing a proper sleeping routine.

Woman looking at laptop stressed from brain fog

Hormonal Changes

Hormonal changes can lead to brain fog. Women with hormonal imbalances are primarily those undergoing perimenopause, menopause, pregnancy, or changing their birth control. When estrogen and progestin levels fluctuate, it affects your focus. 

Associated symptoms

When hormones change, they can leave you with fogginess and several other symptoms. Hormone-related brain fog is accompanied by symptoms like:

  • Night sweats
  • Feeling tired and sleeping during the day
  • Not being able to sleep
  • Short-term cognitive impairment
  • Changes in memory
  • Poor concentration
  • Moodiness 

It's important to note that when women stabilize their hormones, the fog often clears.

Diet

Your dietary habits play a significant role in cognition. For example, a diet rich in vitamin B12 will keep your brain sharp, while one that is deficient can lead to brain fog. 

Food allergies and sensitivities can also cause brain fog. Such allergies can be a reaction to eating foods containing MSG, aspartame, peanuts, or dairy. When your brain fog is caused by food allergies, removing the trigger ingredient from your diet will eliminate the issue.

Medications

Several medications can contribute to brain fog. This is especially the case of anticholinergics, which play a role in blocking the action of neurotransmitters. As a result, your cognition may be affected. 

Some of these medications include:

  • Oxybutynin prescribed for an overactive bladder
  • Diphenhydramine, commonly found in OTC sleep aids
  • Amitriptyline used to treat depression
  • Chemotherapy to treat cancer

If you're taking one of these medications and start feeling foggy, consult with your physician to explore other options. Lowering your medication dose or switching to another ingredient entirely may help you get rid of your brain fog.

Other health conditions

Many undetected health conditions can lead to brain fog. This is especially the case of illnesses that lead to inflammation, fatigue, and changes in blood sugar levels. 

For instance, brain fog brought on by chronic fatigue will last for more than six months. Other accompanying symptoms include extreme exhaustion for no reason, restless sleep, a sore throat, and muscle and joint pains.

Other possible health conditions include:

  • Hypothyroidism: This occurs when your thyroid is not producing enough hormones. It affects brain functioning, so you might become forgetful and unable to think clearly. Other symptoms may include weight gain, weakness, constipation, restlessness, and an intolerance to cold temperatures.
  • Dehydration: When you're not drinking enough fluids, your cells become dehydrated. This affects your mental capabilities and leads to brain fog.
  • Autoimmune diseases: These include lupus, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis can affect your nervous system, resulting in a lack of communication between your brain and other body parts. With this condition, you'll experience disordered cognition, numbness, exhaustion, vision problems, trouble walking, and muscle weakness.
  • Fibromyalgia: This is a condition that leads to chronic fatigue and pain. Aside from having a fibro-fog, you're more likely to experience pains that last for months, feel extreme tiredness, and have trouble sleeping due to aches, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea. 
Woman meditating outside overlooking mountains

Solutions for Brain Fog

By the time your doctor diagnoses you with brain fog, you've probably been noticing a lack of clarity for quite some time. Your doctor will rule out any underlying conditions through a physical examination and some questions about your mental health, diet, physical activity, and medications. 

If you have other related symptoms, let your doctor know about them. A blood test is sometimes necessary to evaluate your glucose levels, possible nutritional deficiencies, infections, or poor kidney and liver functioning. According to the results, your doctor will determine the best treatment course. 

Treating brain fog is all about understanding the root cause. Sometimes, treating the underlying medical condition can resolve your mental fogginess. Other times, it's helpful to try some lifestyle changes. Consider the following in those efforts:

  • Sleep around 8-9 hours every night. While most believe the brain is a machine that you can turn on and off, it performs crucial restorative functions as you sleep. Thus, regulating your sleep habits is an essential first step in healing.
  • Learn stress-relieving techniques like meditation and yoga. Breathing exercises can help as well. If you notice you're feeling anxious, try to look at what is causing your anxiety and consider working through those thoughts with a therapist, if needed.
  • Working out is essential for both your heart and your brain. Your brain requires a lot of energy. More than 40% of the blood pumping out of the heart flows to your brain. So, your mind needs a healthy heart to keep functioning properly. 
  • Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine.
  • Engage in activities that bring you joy.
  • Make sure you're eating enough lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables. 
  • Try the five-by-five exercise, where you stop thinking about anything at all five times a day for five minutes. All you need is a simple blank mind. Close your eyes and think of nothing or go for a quiet walk in nature to help reset your brain.
  • Stop multitasking. When you multitask, your brain suffers. Instead, focus on one task at a time. For instance, if you and your friend are watching a movie, discuss your thoughts once it's over. This focus can help you regain as much as 30% of neural function by increasing the speed of connectivity across your brain.

Supplements for brain fog

Supplements can help make up for nutrients your body is otherwise lacking and support brain health. Talk to your doctor to rule out any nutritional deficiencies and see where supplements can help. As a place to start, you might consider turmeric and omega-3 supplements for their protective benefits.*

Turmeric Supplements

New studies indicate that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has neuroprotective properties that can help promote mental clarity. Turmeric supplements can help boost memory, reduce and prevent brain fog, and promote good cognitive functioning.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Consider taking omega-3 supplements to support ongoing brain health. Studies reveal that omega-3 supplements can provide your cell membranes with fatty acids essential for proper brain functioning.

Cell membranes are abundant in fatty acids that help preserve their health and facilitate intercellular communication. If your diet is low in omega-3 fatty acids, these fatty acids decrease, leading to deficits and potential cognitive issues.

Key takeaways

Brain fog is a symptom associated with several possible health conditions. Depending on its underlying cause, treatment plans may differ. It's important to check with your doctor if you've felt mentally foggy for some time. 

In the majority of cases, a regular wellness plan can help. This includes sleeping well, working out, eating well, taking smart supplements, and keeping your brain at its best.