Brain Fog: causes, symptoms, and treatments
“I feel I’m just getting by on autopilot. I feel delayed with my actions and reactions to questions and
“It’s almost identical to what I go through when I’m awakened from a dream – just total bewilderment and almost
complete inability to process anything that’s going on.”
“Sometimes I am very far off. I’ll pause and get confused in the middle of doing things. I’m drowsy all the time
and just don’t know what’s going on.”
“I feel heavy on the front of my head, unrefreshed, similar to a hangover or jet lag.”
“I feel like Dory in Finding Nemo.”
If this sounds familiar, then you know what “brain fog” feels like. Brain fog is a symptom, not a diagnosis or disease. It leaves a person temporarily unable to concentrate or think clearly. Brain fog can vary considerably from person to person. The term “brain fog” only emerged in scientific literature about ten years ago, but it is just a new common name for a not-so-new or unusual bodily symptom. Cognitive dysfunction by other names, like “fibro fog” to “chemo brain,” has long been known to accompany some chronic conditions.
Not all brain fog is created equally: anything from stress to dehydration to a urinary tract infection (UTI) can cause mild, temporary brain fog. COVID-19 itself may be increasing rates of a particular kind of brain fog seen in “long-haul” COVID cases. Regardless of the cause, the forecast for the brain remains the same: foggy, forgetful, and fuzzy around the edges.
Fortunately, new treatments, such as the innovative hyperbaric oxygen therapy medical protocol at Aviv Clinics, may offer relief from brain fog caused by chronic conditions like Lyme and fibromyalgia. Scientific advancements, plus understanding the causes, symptoms, and tips to manage brain fog can help you take charge of this difficult cognitive condition.
What is brain fog?
Brain fog isn’t a specific medical diagnosis, but rather an indication of something else. Symptoms can be variable, vague, and unspecific.
Many things can cause the kind of cognitive dysfunction that many people describe as brain fog. The effects of brain fog can range from harmless, transient, and annoying to exhausting, frustrating, and debilitating. Some people use the term to refer to isolated or minor transgressions that last hours or at worst days. For others it may mean significant, constant, and debilitating cognitive struggles.
What chronic conditions cause frequent brain fog?
People who have myalgic encephalitis or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) or a related condition, fibromyalgia, are no strangers to brain fog. In fact, the term most likely came from the term “fibro fog” that sufferers of both conditions have used for many years to describe the frequent cognitive challenges. Chemotherapy patients may be familiar with “chemo brain,” which is the fogginess caused by medication and not the cancer itself.
Other medical conditions that sometimes feature cognitive dysfunction include depression, anemia, thyroid disorders, autoimmune diseases, and diabetes.
What else causes brain fog?
Excluding viral infection or major health conditions, if you’re otherwise healthy, having mild and/or temporary brain fog probably doesn’t signal major health risks. Your mental muddiness may be for more common reasons:
- Stress. It’s hardly a surprise that stress can affect the body. The brain is no exception. Although short term stress can actually sharpen your mind, over the long term, stress can negatively impact the brain.
- Lack of sleep. Another obvious, but often overlooked, cause of mental fatigue is sleep. You may need an average of 4 days to recover from a single hour of lost sleep.
- Hormones. Menopause is well known for wreaking havoc on the brain. The characteristic drop in estrogen can trigger memory and concentration issues.
- Diet. In addition to vitamins like B12 needed to keep the brain running at peak performance, some food allergies have been shown to contribute to brain fog.
- Medications. Many medications, especially psychiatric ones and some antibiotics, can have side effects that affect the way you think or seem to slow down the brain.
What can we do to help with brain fog?
Having brain fog is a sign that our body as a whole isn’t running on all cylinders, much like when we get sick with a cold or flu. Normal bodily functions don’t work as well. The brain needs constant oxygen, the right supply of nutrients, and rest in order to function well. When we start falling short in one area of health, it’s easy to spiral out of control. Looking at the list of causes for brain fog, the cycle becomes clear: lack of sleep can lead to stress, which can lead to poor diet, and so on.
Managing brain fog through good self-care to ensure general health and wellness should come as no surprise:
- Try to manage stress.
Easier said than done, but worth the effort. Many people find meditation
helpful in dealing with stress, plus for getting good sleep.
- Eat a variety of healthy foods to get the most vitamins and nutrients.
- Get enough sleep. The amount varies from person to person, so figure out what is right for you.
- Maintain physical activity. Exercise has proven benefits for the brain. Start with 30 minutes, 3 days per
- Drink enough water every day. Some cases of brain fog can be traced to simple dehydration.
- Challenge the brain with games, puzzles, or anything novel. Here’s a free brain training game to get you
When should you be worried about brain fog?
Everybody forgets things on occasion and everybody is going to experience ups and downs when it comes to brain performance. Lots of factors, such as sleep and hydration, can affect cognitive ability. Starting in your mid-60s, a slight decline in mental faculties is expected due to normal aging. Forgetting names, words, or walking into a room and forgetting why you’re there, are actually quite normal and don’t signal impending memory loss.
But when memory and other cognitive issues start to interfere with normal functioning, that’s a possible sign that warrants more attention. People with mild cognitive decline and/or early stages of dementia may simply stop doing things they used to do or have difficulty with regular tasks like paying bills. This infographic from the National Institute on Aging details some common differences between normal aging and signs of serious memory loss.
The bottom line
Brain fog may be a normal fact of life, especially with today’s stress-filled lifestyle, but it’s usually nothing to worry about. Managing your self-care and staying healthy in other areas can go a long way towards clearing away the fog.