What's brain fog?
Discover more on brain fog symptoms and some ways to overcome it.
Brain fog isn’t a medical diagnosis, it is a general term used to describe feelings of being mentally slow, fuzzy or spaced out.
Commonly associated symptoms of brain fog include:
1. Memory Lapses
2. Decrease in Mental Alertness
3. Poor Concentration
4. “Not feeling it”
Most of us have experienced “brain fog” occasionally, typically when we’ve slept poorly or not at all or when we are under overwhelming stress over an extended period of time. With the prolonged pandemic starting from 2020 and stretching well into 2021, many have expressed increased frequency in their experience of brain fog.
Here are some possible contributing factors of brain fog:
1. Impaired sleep1
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 rapid eye movement (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.
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.
3. Diet deficiencies and food sensitivities1
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. 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.
Being stressed puts you at a greater risk for every major disease you can think of, including brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Chronic stress can also leads to anxiety, depression, poor decision making, insomnia, memory loss, and of course, brain fog. Cortisol is the hormone released when you’re stressed, and it’s fine in small amounts. But, too much of the stress hormone can interfere leads to a surplus free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules — that damage brain cell membranes. When the brain cell membranes are damaged, this causes them to lose function and die.
5. Physical inactivity2
Physical exercise increases endorphins and gets more glucose and oxygen flowing to the brain. It also burns off cortisol (the stress hormone) and stimulates new brain cell formation. In fact, physical exercise may be the single most important way to improve the health and function of your brain. So, when you aren’t doing enough physical activity, you may experience brain fog in a big way.
6. Side effects of certain medications2
Every medication carries some risks. Brain fog is one of the most commonly reported side effects of certain medications, such as prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. For example, Statin cholesterol-lowering drugs and prescription sleeping pills are notorious for causing memory loss. Besides, an entire group of drugs that known as the anticholinergics work by blocking the action of acetylcholine, the brain chemical of memory and learning. Typical side effects of anticholinergic drugs include brain fog, forgetfulness, and inability to concentrate.
Fortunately, we’re able to get rid of that brain fog by using some tricks! Here are some ways to help improve our ‘pandemic’ brains:
1. Sweat it out
As the saying goes, ‘healthy body, healthy mind’. The pandemic has led to us to staying in more than usual, causing us to not move as much as we used to. Studies show that exercise and physical activity improve parts of the brain that controls thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex). Exercising helps to increase blood flow to the brain allowing our brain to get the nourishment it needs while getting rid of unnecessary waste products. This improves our ability to focus and increase our memory retention3.
2. Add variety into your life
By being at home most of the time, our brain loses the stimulation that it usually gets from going out and interacting with the world around us. A study has found that if people’s lives become more confined and repetitive as they age, their use for the hippocampus, which plays a major role in learning and memory, decreases4. Adding a variety of activities into your life injects something different into your routine which can help stimulate your brain. Working on some crossword puzzles, picking up a hobby, learning a new skill or even deliberately reflecting on your day can help.
3. Write it down
Writing things down might seem like a no-brainer but the fact remains that writing things down, especially with pen and paper, can help us to remember better5. This is because the process of writing allows us to process ideas for a longer period of time, allowing us to be able to fully absorb the information. It is important to rephrase information in your own words to reinforce your understanding and help you remember it better.
4. Give yourself a break
Staying at home most of the time can warp our perception of time and make everything seem like it is merged into one, and that can be overwhelming. Taking short breaks between tasks gives your mind and body the much needed time to relax. Even if it is just taking 5 to 10 minutes to call a friend for a quick chat or singing along to your favourite tunes or dancing around the room - anything that enables you to shake some stress off can be beneficial to your brain. Doing this allows you to come back to information with a fresh outlook and can actually increase your productivity and creativity. It also gives your brain the much needed processing time and keeps exhaustion at bay6.
5. Catch those Zs
Sleep plays a fundamental role in our ability to memorise information. During sleep, the brain organizes and consolidates information for long-term memory. This allows your brain to recover and remember information more effectively. Good sleep refreshes and relaxes the mind, enabling us to concentrate better, and thus be better able to commit more information to memory. Sleep deprivation on the other hand not only impacts our motivation and mood but also our memory retention, creativity, problem-solving abilities and critical thinking skills7.
6. Feed your brain
Fuelling the mind is an essential element in order to increase focus and concentration. Try adding more blueberries, salmon, avocado, freshly brewed tea and dark chocolate (yum!) to your daily diet as they help promote brain health.