Brain fog can have many different causes, but they all make you not feel like yourself, can affect your work and relationships, and leave you feeling a little crazy. Here’s how to get rid of brain fog for good.
Brain health is not only critical to mental capacity but is also paramount to emotional wellbeing. Your feelings and your thoughts are intimately connected and to feel good, you have to think good. At Parsley Health, we’re all about optimization, and we have many members that come to us looking for better mental focus, clarity, and brain power.
What is brain fog?
Brain fog can show up in a variety of ways. Mostly it feels like your head contains cotton candy where there once was dense intellectual nervous tissue. The lights are on, but there’s nobody home.
You might be unable to concentrate for long enough—on work tasks, conversations, or even on the words you’re reading right now. You may have difficulty making up your mind, small decisions are a big deal, you need more coffee to focus, more snacks to stay awake, and more booze at night for temporary relief from the fog. In more severe cases, you might have headaches, problems with your vision or even nausea.
What causes brain fog?
Brain fog can be a symptom of a nutrient deficiency, sleep disorder, bacterial overgrowth from overconsumption of sugar, depression, or even a thyroid condition. Other common brain fog causes include eating too much and too often, inactivity, not getting enough sleep, chronic stress, and a poor diet. These are some of the most common causes of brain fog that we see at Parsley Health.
Hormonal transitions are common throughout your life, whether during pregnancy, post-partum, menopause, or just unexpected changes in your environment and lifestyle. And oftentimes these periods leave your brain feeling fuzzy and confused—one study found that 60 percent of women have difficulty concentrating during menopause. In some cases, changing mood or sleeping habits could be contributing to your foggy head feelings, but it could also be due to the fluctuating hormone levels while your body tries to restore balance.
Poor sleep hygiene, like an irregular sleep and wake time, getting less than seven to eight hours of sleep a night, or blue light exposure before bed disrupts your natural circadian rhythm aka your internal body clock. This contributes to brain fog in a few different ways. In the case of blue light exposure close to bedtime, the blue wavelengths decrease the hormone melatonin that is essential for deep REM sleep. Both REM and non REM sleep is required to consolidate and process memories from the day. During the hours of 10pm and 2am is when your body and brain detoxify the most, so remaining in an active state during this time disrupts the body’s natural detoxification process and can contribute to fogginess.
An untimely wake time that doesn’t fall at the end of a sleep cycle can also impair your cognitive function and cause you to be more tired and foggy during the day. Apps like Sleep Cycle use your movement throughout the night to track what stage of sleep you’re in and sets an alarm to go off at the end of your sleep cycle, ensuring you won’t be disrupted mid deep sleep, as a conventional alarm clock tends to do. Note that hitting the snooze button once your alarm goes off won’t make you feel more rested, but instead increases the likelihood of you falling asleep, only to be disrupted again.
Diet deficiencies and food sensitivities
Vitamin B12 contributes to the formation of red blood cells and the maintenance of your central nervous system. It’s why a deficiency in B12 is sure to impair your energy levels and elicit an overall feeling of fatigue. A vitamin D deficiency can also be behind brain fog as decreased vitamin D levels are associated with impaired cognitive function. An unidentified food intolerance can also contribute to the foggy head feeling you’re experiencing. For example, gluten intolerance can lead to cognitive dysfunction via inflammatory pathways. Advanced blood work that looks at your nutrient levels as well as an elimination diet or food allergy or sensitivity testing can determine if any of these could be contributing to your brain fog.
Though stress may seem like a common and relatively harmless term, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body. When your body perceives a stressful situation, it activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), or the fight-or-flight response. This response triggers the release of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, and norepinephrine, and ultimately diverts energy away from your body’s typical functions and towards the stressor. This can make it difficult to think clearly, harder to focus, and could exhaust your brain. Learning to reduce your stress over time through interventions like meditation, exercise, or dietary changes, may help when your brain feels foggy.
Certain medications—both prescription and over the counter—are known to cause brain fog as a side effect. Though your head feeling cloudy while taking medication may be made out to seem normal and expected, it’s not. At Parsley Health, we believe in lifestyle interventions that solve your underlying issues before turning to medication. But if medication is necessary, your doctor can help you determine if your medication is compromising your brain health and work with you to find the right remedy—whether that’s changing medications or lowering your dosage.
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety have been shown to impair cognitive function, affecting executive function, attention, and memory. Research suggests that this could be linked to either the loss of energy and motivation associated with mental health conditions, or physiological effects on the brain that make it difficult to function properly. If you struggle with depression or anxiety, talk to your healthcare provider about treatment options.
Whether you feel tired all the time, lack focus and mental clarity, or deal with mood changes, a thyroid disorder may be at the root of your symptoms. This butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck is responsible for producing and releasing hormones that control everything from metabolism and heart rate to breathing and menstrual cycles and are frequently linked to brain fog. This is especially true with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune immune disease where your immune system attacks your thyroid, inhibiting it from producing enough thyroid hormones and creating an inflammatory state. But whether your thyroid gland is producing too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) or too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), this could be causing your brain fog. Other symptoms of a thyroid disorder can include weight loss or gain, fatigue, muscle weakness and digestive issues.
If you think a thyroid issue may be at play, talk to your doctor about a thyroid test. Many doctors will look at your TSH levels, but in reality there are other thyroid markers that can give a better picture of what’s going on. At Parsley Health, doctors routinely check Free T4, Total T4, Free T3, Reverse T3, anti-TPO antibodies, and anti-thyroglobulin to assess your thyroid health.
Heavy metal exposure
Heavy metals are everywhere in our daily lives—our food, beauty products, and even teeth fillings. The most common sources of heavy metal exposure are arsenic, mercury, aluminum, lead, thallium, and cesium. And while limited amounts of these metals won’t necessarily cause toxicity, heavy metal accumulation resulting from chronic exposure overtime can cause immune dysfunction, hormone imbalance, fatigue, brain fog, and high blood pressure. Testing levels of heavy metals in your blood is a good way to ensure your body is toxin-free, and regularly incorporating detox practices like heart-rate raising physical activity or weekly sauna sessions is a great start to keeping your levels under control and reducing any symptoms.
How to get rid of brain fog and improve focus
At Parsley Health, we work with our members to get to the root cause of their issues and resolve brain fog for good. Your doctor will work with you to understand your complete health history, symptoms, and then order the appropriate lab work to test things like your thyroid function and heavy metal levels. With this information, your doctor can craft a personalized health plan to address your brain fog and any other symptoms you may be experiencing. These are a few recommendations our doctors and health coaches may have to help you get rid of brain fog.
1. Give your digestive system a rest.
Intermittent fasting is all the rage in the nutrition and weight loss world. But it’s not just beneficial for dropping pounds, calorie restriction and longer periods between meals can also promote neurological health and decrease neurodegenerative diseases. Start with trying to extend the time between the last meal of the day and the first meal of the next day. Shoot for 12 hours. This promotes a process called ketogenesis, which can stimulate brain regeneration. But ketogenesis can be tricky and should be practiced under the guidance of someone who knows what they’re doing. Work with a Parsley Health doctor and coach to leverage both the timing and contents of your meals for better mental focus.
2. Move it or lose it.
Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s dementia and even mild cognitive dysfunction are more prevalent in sedentary populations. Increased activity levels are clearly associated with sharper mental acuity, a better memory and an elevated mood. Exercise causes the release of helpful chemical messengers called cytokines as well as chemicals that are responsible for elation called endorphins. These chemicals bathe and rejuvenate the brain. Try to engage in some type of enjoyable movement every day. Walk, run or dance. Whatever floats your boat will surely also float your mood.
3. Be an efficient sleeper.
The classic mistake people make with their brains, whether it’s dealing with work, school or whatever looming project deadline, is that they try to maximize their time by staying up late and/or getting up early. This typically backfires because cognitive abilities decrease with sleep deprivation. Sleep at least seven hours nightly, preferably eight or even nine when possible. The quality of your work will increase while the time it takes to produce such quality work will diminish.
4. Balance active workouts with active tune-ins.
Many types of exercise stimulate the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for “fight or flight” responses. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t know the difference between running on a treadmill or running from danger—both look like stress. Stress manifests as brain fog. In order to reduce stress, you need to flex your parasympathetic nervous system, which is engaged during rest and relaxation and helps to calm your body and your mind. You can do this by incorporating more meditation and yoga into your routine.
5. Feed your brain.
Your brain is made up of a lot of fat and protein. Does it make sense that our diets are low in both of these food groups? Not so much. Sugary processed stuff is not your brain’s fave food. Stick to plant-based Paleo (mostly vegetables, enough protein, and always some good fats). Get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids (for their anti-inflammatory powers), a lot of antioxidants and coenzyme Q10 (essential for energy), and boost your body’s natural energy production and regeneration with essential vitamins and minerals.