What is brain fog and how can you treat it?

What is brain fog and how can you treat it?

Is your thinking less clear or sharp than it used to be? Are you mentally exhausted or sluggish for no apparent reason? If so, you may be among an increasing number of people suffering from brain fog.

Feeling unfocused, tired, and distracted is normal in certain situations; perhaps you’ve had a few sleepless nights, are stressed about an upcoming work deadline, or are still recovering from a bout of illness such as COVID or the flu.

But when brain fog persists over an extended period, with no obvious direct cause, it may be a reason for concern.

Your social life, productivity, and ability to enjoy your hobbies can all suffer when battling a lethargic brain.

What exactly is brain fog, and why is it so prevalent? What causes our thought processes to slow down and become muddled, and what can we do about it?

What is brain fog: a social phenomenon or medical condition?

Brain fog is not technically a medically diagnosable condition. It describes a collection of symptoms with several possible underlying causes.

Brain fog typically involves inattentiveness, poor concentration and memory, and a lack of mental clarity. Some people also feel sleepy or fatigued, despite getting adequate sleep.

One potential contributor to brain fog is the global pandemic. A Harvard cognitive clinic reported that about 22 per cent – 32 per cent of patients seeking help for uncharacteristic forgetfulness and poor concentration might be experiencing the lingering effects of long COVID.

Poor memory, executive functioning, and mental sharpness are common lingering side effects of serious coronavirus infections. However, researchers still don’t understand exactly how or why this occurs.

Direct links to the virus aside, brain fog can also result from the global social and lifestyle shifts that began in 2020.

Sabina Brennan, a neuroscientist and author of Beating Brain Fog: Your 30-Day Plan to Thinking Faster, Sharper, Better, explained that disruptions to our routines severely reduce our thinking abilities.

Our brain’s cerebral cortex is responsible for conscious thought and uses an enormous amount of energy to operate. To make thinking more efficient, the brain constantly scans for patterns to automate cognitive tasks, freeing up mental energy for more important, novel, and creative thoughts.

This explains how certain processes eventually become habitual, like brushing your teeth before bed or washing your hands after using the bathroom. If we needed to think about and consciously make these decisions every time, we would end up exhausted and feel mentally overwhelmed by the most mundane tasks. Sound familiar?

The staggering disruption to everyone’s way of living at the start of 2020 shattered deeply ingrained routines and dissolved the structure our brains relied on to free up energy for deep thinking.

While the threat of COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared, most people are now returning to their previous pace of living and working. This shift has created a new challenge and disrupted our new ‘normal’ routines, giving our brains yet another challenge to overcome and adjust to.

It’s perfectly natural, then, that some people are struggling with brain fog as they return to a semblance of normal.

What are the causes of persistent brain fog?

Brain fog can take a serious toll on your wellbeing and may require medical intervention. If you’ve struggled with mental fatigue and the inability to concentrate for more than a few weeks, you may need to make some changes.

Start by evaluating your current lifestyle, habits, and routines to identify potential causes. Prioritise getting enough sleep, build supportive morning and evening routines to automate tasks in your daily to-do list, and engage in mindfulness to manage your stress levels.

Deep, restful sleep is crucial for feeling sharp, as it allows our brain to process and clear out mental ‘junk’ that clouds our thinking. Ensuring you practice good sleep hygiene and having a similar bedtime and waking time each day can do wonders for improving the quality of your sleep.

Mindful strategies like meditation, journalling, or yoga are amazing for giving you dedicated time to slow down and sift through your thoughts, figuring out what is and isn’t important to free up space in your cognitive hard drive.

Women may be at greater risk of brain fog due to a combination of hormonal, biological, and social factors. Hormonal fluctuations associated with menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause can seriously affect how your brain copes with daily demands.

Research supports the idea that menstrual periods alter your emotional and cognitive state, increasing the likelihood of low mood and poor mental clarity.

Social factors linked to gender bias also have a role to play. Women are more likely to carry more mental load than their male counterparts, in addition to increasing demands at work and home.

Women frequently carry more than their fair share of domestic and family responsibilities, leading to serious burnout, which mimics or heightens symptoms similar  to brain fog.

Brain fog is frustrating to deal with, and it may be an important sign that you are pushing yourself too hard. Finding ways to embrace the deeply productive nature of rest, mindfulness, and play through socialising and hobbies can do wonders for clearing unnecessary mental clutter.

What is brain fog and how can you treat it?

When should I seek medical support for brain fog?

If you’ve already ruled out lifestyle and stress-related causes for your brain fog, seek support from your doctor to explore potential medical reasons for your lack of focus.

They will ask questions about your symptoms and try to understand how it affects your daily life and any triggers that seem to worsen it.

They may then use a series of blood tests to determine nutritional deficiencies, infections, blood glucose abnormalities, and organ health issues which could be causing the brain fog.

Based on your results, further testing may be used, such as imaging tools like CT scans, X-rays, and MRIs.

If no biological factors are found, your doctor may suggest other treatment or management options, like creating a mental health plan for rebated sessions with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health care professional.

Battling brain fog: how to start thinking clearly again

Whatever the specific causes of your brain fog, know that help is available. Many simple home remedies and lifestyle changes can help to clear a cloudy brain.

Go gently and try to work harmoniously with your current capacity, rather than berating yourself for not operating at the same speed you once did. Explore these home remedies for improving brain fog with self-compassion and curiosity, and allow time to find what works for you.

You can also try the following:

Get enough sleep

Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night to function well. Have a regular bedtime to allow your natural body clock to manage your sleeping patterns effectively.

Reduce blue light exposure before bed and, if possible, get outside into natural light within an hour of waking to support your sleep-regulating hormones.

Manage stress

Practice setting boundaries around work, family, or other relationships that cause stress or worry.

Find ways of managing your relationship with substances like caffeine and alcohol, which interfere with your management of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Excessive cortisol and adrenaline can keep you in a state of survival mode, making it very difficult to process complex thoughts and emotions effectively.

Engage in gentle movement

Exercising is a great natural stress reliever; some research suggests it also helps your brain function more optimally.

You don’t need a vigorous workout; a gentle walk after dinner or a morning yoga session will do the trick to support your physical and mental wellbeing.

Train your brain

Some activities like puzzles, sudoku, or learning a new language are great for strengthening your thinking abilities.

Keep your mind engaged with meaningful hobbies or volunteering that inspire you to think in new ways to create new and more resilient neural connections.

Nourish your body and mind

A nutritious, diverse diet including enough protein, fruit, vegetables, and healthy fats is critical for optimal brain function. In addition to healthy lifestyle choices, you could also consider personalized nootropics to help support your cognitive function.

Getting adequate nutrition from the foods you eat supports brain health and may stimulate neurogenesis – the production of new neurons.

Try to gradually increase your diet’s variety, quality, and vibrancy to start feeling the benefits of a nourished mind.

TELL US: Have you tried anything else that worked successfully to relieve brain fog? If so, share your tips in the comments section below.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.