Many people know the feeling of trying to read a book, only to find themselves reading the same page over and over again, without really taking in anything at all. Or having a to-do list the length of their arm, but then they keep forgetting the first thing on that list! This is known as brain fog – the feeling of being confused, disoriented, forgetful and unable to focus.
While the occasional bout of brain fog is nothing to worry about, it can become an issue when it starts to interfere with daily activities such as work and school.
The good news – brain fog can be cleared up with some changes in lifestyle, once you understand the root causes behind the issue.
What does brain fog feel like?
Brain fog is different for everyone – below are some of the most common brain fog symptoms: (1)
No matter how much sleep a person gets, they still feel as if they haven’t slept for days.
Even thinking takes effort, the same way a person’s body may feel after an intense workout.
It may feel difficult to concentrate on work, let alone anything. A simple conversation may feel like a complicated task as a person tries to decipher the words someone is saying to them.
This is second nature with brain fog, and a person may constantly try to remember simple words or even what they need to do that afternoon! Many describe it as “having the memory of a goldfish.”
This list can go on and on, but by now the common thread is clear – a feeling of a head full of cotton candy, forgetfulness, fatigue and a real struggle to focus.
What are the causes of brain fog?
Brain fog is still not fully understood, but the causes will vary depending on the severity of symptoms and the individual. For most people, brain fog is reversible with lifestyle and nutrition. However, if you have a physiological condition such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) or decreases in cerebral blood flow (CBF), please speak to a healthcare practitioner.
If you do not have any of the medical conditions above, but still struggle with brain fog, try addressing the root causes listed below before visiting a practitioner.
Lack of sleep
This one seems pretty obvious, but even one hour less of a person’s usual sleep length, can affect them and cause brain fog. Aim for at least 7-8 hours per night to feel alert and focused. In a study of 132 subjects with brain fog, lack of sleep was one of the top ranked brain fog triggers at a frequency of 90% (2)
Chronic stress increases the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which research has shown has a neurodegenerative effect over time. Consistently high levels of cortisol damage and kill brain cells, – specifically, in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for episodic memory – decreases the rate at which new brain cells are made and can overall lead to premature brain aging. (3)
Hormonal changes can certainly contribute to brain fog. For example, during pregnancy, an increase in estrogen and progesterone can impair memory and contribute to short-term memory loss, or as many people like to call it; “pregnancy brain”. The changes that occur during a woman’s menstrual cycle and during menopause may affect thinking too.(4)
It's also important to get your thyroid health reviewed by a Naturopathic doctor – the thyroid gland governs our metabolism and is responsible for providing energy to all cells. If thyroid levels aren't where they should be, this can also contribute towards mental fatigue. This effect is worsened if chronic stress is also a factor. Poor diet
Strong cognitive function is dependent on the brain receiving high quality fuel from foods to form neurons, neurotransmitters and a multitude of other hormones. If your diet is high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, stimulants and processed foods, you may have nutritional deficiencies. For example, a Vitamin B12 deficiency has been proven to have damaging effects on the brain, especially related to memory performance in the hippocampus. (5)
Certain foods can also trigger brain fog – such as wheat and dairy – and should be investigated through an elimination diet to see if symptoms improve. (6)
How to get rid of brain fog and improve focus
After reading causes above, you may already intuitively understand which area you need to focus on.
External stressors will always exist, but it is how we respond to stress that determines the level of cortisol that will be released.
First and foremost, it's important to make time for yourself to unwind and focus on something that brings you a sense of inner peace. It could be as simple as a walk in nature, spending time with loves ones, or making time for a hobby like gardening, cooking or painting. Try to minimize screen time.
Adaptogens are also an excellent tool for naturally reducing the stress response and lowering cortisol levels. These are herbs that are proven to help reduce mental exhaustion, improve mood and focus. (7) Veeva's Stress formula contains two of the most powerful adaptogens, rhodiola and ashwagandha, and can be taken long-term to combat daily stress and eliminate brain fog.
It's well-know that exercise triggers endorphins that make you feel good, but research also shows that physical activity can improve cognitive function – especially when it is done on a regular basis. Moderate intensity exercise has been shown to improve working memory, whereas high intensity improves the speed at which we can process information. As you age, high-intensity is better overall for cognitive function than low-intensity training. (8)
This one is simple. Aim to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night – if you struggle with getting quality sleep consider improvements in sleep hygiene such as turning off screens an hour before bedtime, using an eye mask and going to bed at the same time each night. You can also try out natural remedies, such as the Veeva Sleep Formula if you need extra assistance with drifting off to sleep.
Lastly, aim to eat a diet that is rich in whole, plant foods and antioxidants, as these help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, which contribute to symptoms of brain fog. In particular, try to include more anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fatty acids, such as flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel.