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.
5 tips for sound sleep and a healthy brain
It doesn’t matter what age you are, getting a good night’s rest is essential for your physical and mental health. Taking the time to recharge every night is especially vital because sleep and brain health are closely related. However, as we age, sleep doesn’t always come as easily as it used to.
In a 2003 poll, the National Sleep Foundation found that over 48% of older adults experience symptoms of insomnia more than twice a week, and the National Institute on Aging reported that insomnia is one of the most common problems experienced by adults aged 60 and over.
Insomnia and sleep disruptions have been known to worsen health conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and increase your risk factors for developing other health problems, including heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, and hypertension. Let’s dig into the science behind sleep and what are our five best tips for a good night’s rest!
Why sleep is so important to our bodies
Sleep gives your body some much-needed rest, but it’s also vital for maintaining your cognitive health. When you lie down to sleep at night, your body takes this time to cleanse your brain of toxins and waste. The space between your brain cells actually enlarges during sleep, allowing your body to wash out harmful substances like beta-amyloid proteins, which researchers have linked to the formation of Alzheimer’s disease. It follows, then, getting enough sleep can help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
A poor night’s sleep has also been tied to forgetfulness and lapses in memory. Because sleep is the vital period when our brains take time to consolidate our memories, not getting adequate sleep makes you more likely to forget things during the day. A good night’s rest is one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal in the fight against mental aging.
Why getting enough rest is more difficult as we age
Production of the “sleep hormone” melatonin naturally decreases with age, making it harder for older adults to fall asleep and stay asleep. The aging process also causes changes to the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which can make you get tired earlier than usual. Because of this, older adults are also more likely to experience restless sleep and waking up throughout the night.
Environmental factors can also be to blame, such as stress or a lack of structure in your life. Recent retirees sometimes have a hard time adjusting to changes in their schedule, which can lead to fitful sleep.
How to get a good night’s sleep: build healthier sleep habits
Now that you know why a good night’s sleep is so vital, you’re probably wondering how you can improve the quality of your own rest. If you struggle with tossing and turning or restless nights, don’t worry. The good news is that healthy sleep habits are universal and can be practiced by anyone of any age.
It’s never too late to establish a healthy nighttime routine! Here are our 5 best tips to help you combat insomnia, in no particular order.
Work up a sweat
Exercise helps to keep you in good shape, but did you know that exercising can also improve your sleep? The Sleep Foundation has demonstrated a clear link between exercise and improved sleep quality in adults. Try using a fitness tracker, which can be useful to show your progress and motivate you.
To rest easier at night, try going for a brisk walk or bike ride outside. Exposing yourself to sunshine and fresh air can improve circadian rhythm, so you can stay active with your favorite outdoor hobbies like gardening and fishing. Just be careful not to exercise too late in the day–getting worked up too close to bedtime may actually keep you awake!
Don’t nap during the day
Napping is common among older adults and retirees, with research showing that around 25% of older adults take naps daily. But did you know that your daily power nap may actually be doing more harm than good?
It’s true. While a brief nap can be beneficial for a boost of energy, excessive napping can disrupt your circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall asleep at night. If you absolutely must have a nap, try to take it earlier in the day and make sure to sleep for no more than 30 minutes.
Establish a bedtime routine
Human beings are creatures of habit, so practicing good habits before bed can help improve your rest. If you don’t already have one in place, try establishing a nightly routine before drifting off to sleep.
You can engage in soothing activities like taking a bath, reading a book or meditating, to relax before bed. Sleep comes easier in a cold room, so make sure that your bedroom is cool before you lie down. Always try to fall asleep at roughly the same time every night to establish routine, and make sure that you fall asleep while lying in bed–not in a recliner or on the couch.
Turn off the TV
Although many of us like to fall asleep with the glow of the TV to keep us company, staring at screens before bed can actually disrupt your sleep. The blue lights found in common electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, TVs and computers can disrupt your natural circadian rhythm. That’s why experts recommend cutting out all screens and electronic devices before going to bed.
A few hours before your usual bedtime, turn off all your TVs and power down your tablets, phones and laptops. You can replace time in front of the TV with screen-free activities like doing a jigsaw puzzle, playing cards or drawing in an adult coloring book. Instead of sleeping with your phone on your bedside table, try plugging it up to charge in another room. You’ll be less likely to check for texts or emails in the middle of the night and can rest more peacefully.
Cut back on caffeine and other foods
Eating or drinking certain things too close to bed can cause sleep problems. Foods high in caffeine like coffee and chocolate have been shown to disrupt sleep patterns and interfere with melatonin production. Drinking alcohol late at night also could lead to restless sleep because it can cause decreased REM sleep. Never use alcohol as a sleep aid.
If you can’t do without your morning coffee, that’s perfectly all right. Just make sure that it stays a morning cup. Avoid consuming coffee in the afternoon and eating large meals too close to bedtime. Don’t drink too much water before bed, either, if waking to go to the bathroom is a problem for you. If you must eat before bed, try having something to boost your melatonin, like a handful of almonds or a cup of tart cherry juice.
The bottom line
Along with diet and exercise, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy mind and body.
If you’ve tried all these tips and nothing works,
contact Aviv Clinic and schedule a free consultation with our care team: click here
Exercise and Brain Health: Tips to get the most from your workout
The science is pretty clear: exercising and maintaining good health are some of the best things you can do to keep the body at peak performance. But there are more than a few options out there when it comes to exercising. Exercise and brain health are closely linked. Are some forms of exercising better than others when it comes to the brain? Are there right–or wrong–ways to exercise when it comes to maximizing brain power? And how does exercise affect the aging brain?
Aviv Clinics clients receiving the innovative hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatment optimize their brain health because their personalized treatment plan combines cognitive and physical training, plus receive nutritional coaching. As part of the program, clients exercise on the cutting-edge h/p/cosmos medical treadmill at the clinic. The combination of physical and cognitive effort maximizes the benefits of the treatment protocol.
How cognitive abilities change with age
While most Americans fear losing their memory and cognitive abilities, far fewer actually do. As we get older, a slight level of cognitive decline is inevitable due to the normal aging process. It’s common to have issues with memory and slower thinking. But older adults are also increasingly at risk for mild cognitive impairment and dementia, the latter of which includes conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
While some of the risk factors for these conditions are out of your control, such as age, genetics, and family history, your overall health plays a role, too. Staying healthy and active can protect the brain.
Our brains haven’t changed much in the last 50,000 years or so, but our lifestyle certainly has. In the days of our nomadic, hunter-gatherer ancestors, life was a little more physically demanding–our bodies are designed to move and be active. Sitting, it seems, could be making us sick.
According to LifeSpanFitness, these days the average American sits for 11 hours a day, and an estimated 20% of all deaths over age 35 can be attributed to a sedentary lifestyle. Lack of exercise, poor diet, and use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs are often a starting point. Falling into this sedentary lifestyle can quickly lead to a downward spiral.
The spiral of decline
If there are underlying conditions or you have risk factors for certain conditions, a sedentary lifestyle can exacerbate them or lead to chronic disease. Dealing with chronic illnesses is difficult even with access to good healthcare, but many do not or cannot get proper care, further exacerbating present conditions. Helplessness and hopelessness about the situation can then lead to anxiety and/or depression. You may feel like you can’t live the life you used to, and may find yourself self-isolating. Unfortunately, declining physical and mental health can set you up to be even less active, and the cycle continues.
Your brain isn’t the only organ affected by this vicious cycle; this kind of lifestyle can lead to problems with cardiovascular health as well. In fact, they seem to be intricately linked; in general, things that improve heart health improve brain health, too.
How are exercise and brain health linked?
Anytime that you exercise, you’re pumping more blood to your brain tissues, and with that comes a lot of oxygen and other nutrients, vital for the brain’s functioning. In response, the brain also cranks out some helpful molecules. Here are just a few benefits of exercise for the brain:
- Neurotransmitters (NTs) like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are released, improving mood,
motivation, focus, attention, and learning
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps your brain repair and rebuild, creating new neurons and
- Hormones work with BDNF and can boost your mood and mental clarity
- Endorphins and other molecules are released, helping relieve pain
- Increased blood flow delivers nutrients and carries away waste products
- The hippocampus increases in volume
- Neurotransmitters (NTs) like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are released, improving mood,
Two areas of the brain are particularly important when it comes to cognitive decline. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the hippocampus. These areas are the most susceptible to cognitive degeneration or impairment.
The hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, is affected by exercise in a few ways. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can actually increase the volume of brain matter in the hippocampus, an area that will often decline in volume as we age and significantly with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also where a lot of neurogenesis (creating new brain cells) is going on–at least if you’re exercising enough!
The other area that benefits directly from exercise is the prefrontal cortex–this is the CEO of the brain, responsible for most of our executive functions including decision making, attention, problem-solving, and goal setting. Studies have shown that older adults in particular can benefit from exercise due to increased executive functioning.
What’s the best kind of exercise?
Getting oxygen-rich blood pumping to the brain seems to be the best way to reap the benefits of exercise. Therefore, aerobic exercise (or cardio) is a good place to start. While all types of exercise have benefits, most of the studies favor those that elevate your heart rate and keep it there for a time.
The “prescription” for most older adults is to aim to exercise at a moderate-intensity for 30-45 minutes, 3-4 times per week. An easy way to keep track of your progress is with a fitness tracker. Find out if they are right for you.
Moderate intensity can be measured by keeping your heart going at the optimal rate, in this case, 70-80% of your maximum heart rate. To find out your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For example, a 70-year-old’s maximum heart rate would be 150. That means that to exercise at the right intensity, she should maintain a heart rate between 105-120.
You should warm up and cool down for aerobic exercise, but don’t count that as part of your total. The 30-45 minutes (as prescribed) should all be while your heart rate is at the target rate.
Tips for getting started
If you’re like many (if not most) adults, you might be starting more towards the sedentary end of the activity scale. The exercise prescription above is an ideal goal, and it’s used primarily because that’s what they did in the studies that showed the best outcomes for cognitive health. However, other studies showed that lower-intensity activities like walking (5 miles a week) and yoga could be beneficial, too.
Even if you’re aiming for that peak exercise intensity, there are lots of ways to make exercising for brain health more fun, easier, and less stressful.
Find movement that you love
Exercise is about movement, so find a way to move your body that you enjoy. If that’s running laps, great. If you love to dance, then dance! And there’s always sports and leisure–gardening, golfing, bowling, are all ways to move. Even window shopping or hula hooping can count as exercise. Need more ideas? Try any of these non-boring exercises!
Finding movement you enjoy can also help change your perspective and shift away from goals like weight loss that may feel like a chore. Focus on the way exercise makes you feel and the enjoyment you get from moving.
Start from where you are
If you’re already pretty active, or you’ve exercised a lot in the past, it’ll probably be easier for you to start. If you are not as active as you could be, that’s okay! It’s never too late to begin a new exercise practice.
If you really want to get the benefits of brain-boosting exercise, be aware of where you’re starting from and build from there. If you’re sedentary, jumping into an intense workout routine could be difficult physically and frustrating mentally. You’re more likely to stick with it if you’re realistic about your goals and abilities.
Focus on frequency
If you’ve struggled in the past to start an exercise practice, you’re not alone. Exercising consistently means forming a new habit, and that’s no easy feat. Starting any habit takes time, effort, and consistency for a little while. But the awesome benefits of habits are that once they’re formed, they’re automatic.
It might be tempting to jump in at full duration and/or intensity, but it’s also a good way to burn out. In the beginning, it helps to focus more on when and how often you exercise rather than how hard or how long. Even a few minutes a day is enough to tell the brain “this is what we do now.” Eventually, you won’t have to remind (or force) yourself to exercise anymore. Once the habit is formed, it’s much easier to increase the intensity and duration.
Add it up
Ultimately, it’s about moving more and being more active. There are many ways to sneak in more exercise and break up the sitting. For example, if you do sit a lot, you can try setting a timer to get up and walk around every hour. Or start counting your steps and aim to increase them every day.
Many of the classic ways to get more activity are still great, like taking the stairs, parking farther away, playing with kids, or housework and cleaning. Make it a goal to find a new way to squeeze in some activity every day.
So how long does it take before exercising starts to pay off? While many of the benefits of exercise can be felt immediately afterward, such as improvements in mood and energy, lasting results will take longer. Plan on giving it at least six months to assess your brain’s progress.
When it comes to cognitive abilities, measuring and assessing can be a challenge. You may not notice a substantial increase in cognitive ability. As some cognitive decline will occur due to normal aging, it’s often about slowing it down rather than a full reversal. It’s also common for family and friends to notice a change before you do.
The bottom line on exercise and brain health
Find movement that you enjoy, and you’ll have a much easier time making time to exercise. No matter what shape you’re in or what activities you enjoy, you can find a way to optimize both your physical and your cognitive health.